Stronger (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions) is the second big-screen Hollywood dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, following 2016’s Patriots Day. Like that film, Stronger doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details, while also providing a relatable portrait of what it means to be Boston Strong.
Unlike Patriots Day, which interwove stories based on real people (the Tsarnaev brothers, police sergeant Pugliese, police commissioner Davis, bombing survivors Downes and Kensky) with fictional ones, Stronger focuses its attention on one bombing victim. Based on the true story Jeff Bauman (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in an Oscar-worthy performance), Stronger tells of his fight for survival and path to recovery.
Jeff is notoriously flaky, but well-meaning and kind-hearted. Kevin (Danny McCarthy), Jeff’s gay boss at Costco, as well as other co-workers tend to overlook his flightiness. A devoted sports fan (the Red Sox and Bruins, of course), Jeff lives at home with his divorced, hard-drinking mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), who may be the source of his issues.
One person who won’t put up with Jeff’s inability to “show up”, on time or ever, is his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatian Maslany), who broke up with him a month ago. Regardless, when Jeff learns that she’s running in the Boston Marathon the next day. He vows to show up and cheer her on at that finish line. A man of his word, Jeff even makes a sign to hold up for Erin to see as she runs past him.
While standing in the cheering crowd, with his sign held high, Jeff is bumped into by one of the backpack wearing Tsarnaev brothers. The two young men even make eye contact. It’s an especially chilling moment, given that the explosion occurs shortly thereafter.
Honing its focus on Jeff, Erin, Patty and the other members of Jeff’s family, Stronger, puts a different face on the horrors of that fateful day, including the bombing aftermath (presented in flashback sequences throughout). We follow Jeff from one of the bombing sites, where he is tended to by Carlos (Carlos Sanz), a man in the crowd with his own reasons for being there, to the ICU. There’s the arrival of Patty and Jeff’s father Big Jeff (Clancy Brown) and assorted aunts, uncles and cousins. Erin also makes her way to Jeff after seeing images of him on TV being rushed from the scene of the blast.
In a particularly emotional scene in the hospital waiting room, Kevin arrives to bring the family much-needed good news. In some ways, Jeff’s family, who will undoubtedly be compared to the feral mother and sisters in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, are their own sort of story, and they play a considerable role, both positive and negative, in Jeff’s recovery process.
Ultimately, Stronger is Gyllenhaal’s movie (although Maslany is also commendable), and it stands or falls, based on his performance. Gyllenhaal rises to the occasion in every way imaginable, from the regional accent and goofball characteristics to the depiction of agony and triumph. Stronger is also notable for being a necessary comeback for director David Gordon Green, whose last few films (including Our Brand is Crisis and Manglehorn) have been major disappointments. Rating: B+