“Stronger ” is about a survivor but it is not a feel-good movie.
In 2013, 27-year-old Jeff Bauman went to watch his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley, run the Boston Marathon. He was there when the bombs went off and lost both of his legs as a result. An Associated Press photograph of Bauman, bloodied and gravely injured, being wheeled away from the site by a man in a cowboy hat, became an instant icon of that terrorist attack.
But the attack is not the focus here.
It’s the story of the aftermath that director David Gordon Green tells in “Stronger,” based on Bauman’s co-written memoir, and it is raw, ugly and painful to watch at times. There is alcoholism, bitterness, suffering and pain. Hope is something that’s merely projected on him from the outside. He feels none of it.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman as a regular local guy with an affable demeanor. We meet him for a brief moment in his ordinary life — ending his shift at Costco to rush to watch the Red Sox game (or “sawks” game) at a bar, get wasted with his good-time Charlie friends and try to make overtures to his ex (Tatiana Maslany), who hasn’t been responding to his texts.
Green films these early scenes like it’s the beginning of a rom-com. When Bauman goes to the finish line, poster in hand to be there for Hurley, the music is bouncy and hopeful and he has a silly grin on his face, proud of himself for “showing up” — his usual inability to do so being what ended their relationship.
Hurley, who hadn’t quite made it to the finish when the bombs went off, sees Bauman on the television and rushes to him in the hospital. Maslany, a subtle but powerful actress, has the ability to tug at your heartstrings with just the quiver of her chin.
Inside the hospital is a harrowing experience. Bauman’s family is loud and brash (an unflattering and classist depiction of people in crisis that gets exaggerated as the movie goes on). Hurley is pointedly uncomfortable, not knowing her place in all of this but feeling a responsibility to be there. And then there’s Bauman, who is in excruciating pain. Green films Gyllenhaal’s agony close-up as the doctors change the dressing on his wounds.
It only gets worse back at home, a tiny, run-down apartment he shares with his drunk mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), who always has a glass of white wine in her hand and who can’t comprehend, or doesn’t want to deal with, her son’s PTSD. The film indulges in showing Bauman’s hardships and the unique trauma of his public celebrity. He can’t quite comprehend how losing his legs has become an inspiration to so many.
He drinks, he yells, he cries, he misses therapy, he reluctantly attends public events to be a mascot of hope for “Boston Strong,” he hits his head a lot and he and Hurley’s relationship vacillates violently throughout — she moves in, they get back together, he disappoints again — culminating in a shouting match in a car.
It is, in many ways, an anti-Hollywood movie with a fittingly complicated ending. The movie cuts off on a positive note in their relationship, with them together and expecting a child. In real life, Bauman and Hurley divorced earlier this year. But this movie is not a love story. It’s about the sometimes ugly truth behind a symbol. And the most powerful moment comes late in the film with the man in the cowboy hat.
The resilience of humans is something that will never cease to amaze — especially as terrorist attacks continue and natural disasters devastate communities and lives. That “Stronger,” as unpleasant as it is, doesn’t shy away from the complicated side of recovery is admirable to say the least.