Jeff Bauman’s life story is a devastating and inspiring tale of loss and triumph over adversity: His legs were amputated above the knee after he was wounded in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but with the aid of prosthetics, he learned to walk again. The fear I had going into Stronger, the film about Bauman’s recovery starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was that it would cram this genuinely wrenching material into the Hollywood “based on a true story” formula, resulting in a three-act movie of tragedy, love, and stirring achievement that exists primarily as a showcase for an Oscar campaign.
But Stronger, which is directed by David Gordon Green (a former indie darling with one of the most eclectic resumes in the film industry), distinguishes itself with its attention to detail and its focus not on the physical feat of Bauman’s rehabilitation, but on his interior battle with post-traumatic stress. The performances, particularly from Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany (as Bauman’s girlfriend, Erin Hurley), are certainly Oscar-worthy, and the story arc largely follows the inspirational parabola of Hollywood screenwriting. But the movie shouldn’t be dismissed as just another real-life drama to catch on cable TV someday; Stronger is a profound, sensitively made gem.
When we meet Bauman, he’s a lovable, hard-drinking Bostonian working at the deli counter at Costco and trying (vainly) to win back Hurley’s heart after a recent breakup. After hearing that she’s running in the Boston Marathon, Bauman plants himself near the finish line to cheer her on and is wounded in the subsequent terrorist attack. Green keeps the horror of the incident at arm’s length at first (we see the explosion, in the distance, from Hurley’s perspective), though he fills in details later as Bauman begins to remember more about that terrible day.
Crucially, Green and the Stronger screenwriter John Pollono emphasize Bauman’s perspective, and are committed to closing the distance between his distressing situation and the audience. One beautifully shot scene set not long after the bombing illustrates Green’s approach: The director follows the first changing of Bauman’s leg dressings, where the doctors and nurses comfortingly advise him that some amputees choose to watch the procedure and others do not, and that there’s no wrong decision.
Green trains the camera behind Bauman’s head, keeping everything else out of focus as the nurses guide him through the expected pain and shock of the procedure. Hurley, meanwhile, comes in and out of the frame, first unsure of how to offer support, then withdrawing, then slowly returning to Bauman’s side. The moment is perfectly choreographed while feeling entirely natural; it involves routine medical details the viewer might not think to consider, all the while invoking the fraught dynamics of Bauman and Hurley’s relationship and how they’ve changed after the attack. I later learned Green had hired Bauman’s real-life doctors and nurses for the scene to lend it authenticity—and it shows.
That verisimilitude persists throughout the film, even after Bauman leaves the hospital and starts the slow business of returning to a somewhat normal existence. He lives with his mother (a lively Miranda Richardson) in a cramped walkup apartment, and shares her penchant for drinking. He has to contend with his celebrity as he quickly becomes a living symbol of the “Boston Strong” spirit and is regularly accosted by strangers about his bravery. “Am I a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?” he asks one admirer. Gyllenhaal makes sure even these bleak statements have a tinge of dark humor, as Bauman tries to keep up appearances.
Most important of all is Bauman’s relationship with Hurley, and Stronger’s exploration of how their bond is initially motivated by her deep guilt over his presence at the marathon but eventually becomes something more tender. Green isn’t afraid to acknowledge the difficulties of a romantic relationship in which one partner serves as a caregiver. He’s also wise to avoid the common pitfalls of similar movies, where the supportive wife or partner doesn’t get much of a chance to be a real character. Maslany’s work in Stronger is just as heartfelt and textured as Gyllenhaal’s, and she’s given space to flesh out Hurley’s own trauma, and flaws, after the bombing.
The film does sag a little in its downbeat middle act, as Bauman sinks deeper into denial about his PTSD and some inevitable confrontations ensue. But Green wants this, in the end, to be a movie about overcoming incredible odds. Stronger is such a raw, exposed nerve of a film that it can be uncomfortable to take in, even in lighter scenes where Bauman is drinking with his friends and family. And yet there’s a genuineness to Green’s vision, a drive to avoid the narrative shortcuts that movies like this usually lean on. Coupled with two fantastic leading performances, that makes for a true-story drama that actually lives up to the remarkable reality it’s trying to portray.