What didn't kill Jeff Bauman made him Stronger, surviving not only the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings but a crush of well-meaning yet corrosive attention for doing it.
"I'm a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?" Bauman asks no one in particular in Stronger, channeled through Jake Gyllenhaal's acute portrayal. It's the central question of David Gordon Green's uncommonly inspirational movie, more subdued than such against-the-odds material typically plays.
Green doesn't do rah-rah uplift. Even his comedies — Pineapple Express is best known — are deep dives into dark conditions with people seeking light. Green studies characters, allowing scenes more time to expand personalities and usually knowing when to cut. Stronger is his most conventional, audience-friendly material ever but is still a movie of such quiet intimacies.
Few actors convey more, quietly, than Gyllenhaal, whose portrayal of Bauman rates among his finest. Jeff is a character with a capital C, "a chicken roaster from Costco" hanging with other chowder heads, hoping to again reunite with ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley, an equally rich role for Tatiana Maslany (BBC America's Orphan Black).
Erin running the 2013 Boston Marathon is Jeff's chance to prove he cares about her interests, that he'll "show up," a peeve that later sows guilt. Green initially depicts the bombings from Erin's distanced perspective, safe but shaken. Soon she'll see Jeff on cable news, the soon-to-be famous image of him wheeled away, comforted by a stranger in a cowboy hat.
Before Jeff awakens in a hospital, we're clued to the resentment of Erin by Jeff's boozy mother (Miranda Richardson, a little much), his pal's dim camaraderie and a fiercely protective father (Clancy Brown), briskly outlined in John Pollono's screenplay, adapted from Bauman's book. After consciousness comes shock, fear and scarce pity; you have to cheer for anyone in Jeff's condition claiming to feel "like Lt. Dan," from Forrest Gump.
Green doesn't offer many physical rehabilitation scenes; Jeff's emotional rehabilitation is more powerful without grand violins or trumpets. Two nearly wordless scenes in particular: Jeff asking Erin for bathroom assistance, making clear his awkward newness at disability, and a shot with Jeff and Erin in foreground while dressings are painfully removed from his stumps, blurred in background. Tough, affecting stuff.
As Jeff's health improves, his psyche falters, drinking hard and overwhelmed by the Boston Strong commotion for which he's an unwilling poster boy. A tribute at a Bruins hockey game becomes surreal PTSD. A drunk conspiracy theorist claims the bombings were an Obama hoax. Erin was to protect Jeff; Ma wants to exploit him.
Then there are little miracles along the way: Jeff's Costco manager (Danny McCarthy) withstands Bauman tribal suspicion to become part of the family. Jeff doesn't get killed in a drunken swing set incident. His finish-line guardian in the cowboy hat (Carlos Sanz) delivers sobering information, literally.
Stronger is a superb companion piece to Peter Berg's Patriots Day, a gripping police procedural lacking a central, personal drama. Green leaves the sleuthing to others, with plenty of human interest drama at his disposal. Plus he remembers what too many uplift filmmakers forget: The wisest feel-good movies make us feel bad first.
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