Stronger, directed by David Gordon Green, stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a gruelling but inspirational portrait of a man painfully rebuilding his life after losing his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Boston Strongby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Jake Gyllenhaal is Jeff Bauman, an ordinary Joe, an irresponsible Costco chicken roaster, who became extraordinary in the eyes of the world as he fought back from losing both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Trying to win back his keen runner ex-girlfriend Erin (excellent support from Tatiana Maslany), who criticised him for never turning up, this time he was determined to be there with a banner to encourage her, but he was standing right next to the bomber.
His sprawling, noisy blue-collar family are exuberant, sports-mad, largely uncomprehending of his plight but also loyally supportive. His indomitable mother Patty (surprising casting of Miranda Richardson, but with a flawless working-class Boston accent) is aggressively tireless in taking charge of his rehabilitation. Reconciled Erin moves into the family’s flat to look after him as well, much to Patty’s disapproval.
Jeff, meanwhile, still coping with traumatic life-changing injuries and the new stresses in his relationship with Erin, is thrust into a role he never looked for and doesn’t want: everywhere he goes he’s treated as an inspirational role model for ‘Boston Strong’, the city’s defiant response to terrorists and he’s given unlooked-for honours that he’s obliged to accept. The strain eventually tells and he has a melt-down.
The film is quite simply an irresistible, thumping great tear-jerker – though not necessarily gratuitously so. It is also a finely observed celebration of the bravery that Jeff manages to find. It shows telling details such as his needing help in the bathroom, Erin emptying his drawer of socks that will now never be needed, and the mechanics of making a plaster cast for his artificial legs. These everyday things underpin the courage Jeff managed to find to rebuild his life. And Stronger also shows the times when it was almost too hard for him. A pivotal moment is when he finally meets the man who saved his life by quickly applying a tourniquet (Carlos Sanz) and the confidences he shares with him. It’s the beginning of a new, hard-won maturity.
The film is based on the book Jeff wrote with Brett Witter and right at the end we see the real Joe and Erin. Though some moments are overly sentimental and patriotic in a very American way, in the main it’s unsparing, forthright and truly inspirational. Gyllenhaal’s searing performance as Jeff is Oscar worthy.
Stronger premiered in the UK at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 7 December 2017 in the UK.