Stronger: Heroism ain't what it's cracked up to be

By Liam Lacey

(Rating: B)

The “Boston Bombing victim” story Stronger is one of those movies “based on an inspiring true story” that come out every awards season. Predictably, there’s Oscar buzz for actor Jake Gyllenhaal but it’s also a movie with interesting thoughts about what inspirational stories mean.

Adapted by David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono from a memoir of Boston bombing victim, Jeff Bauman, Stronger is a movie that makes full use of the specific resonances of its Boston setting - a flavourful microcosm of white working class America, its pride and its afflictions. We’ve seen it in Good Will HuntingMystic RiverGone Baby Gone, The FighterSpotlight and Manchester By The Sea.

 Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in an ambivalent hero's story

Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in an ambivalent hero's story

This is the second movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, after Peter Berg’s fictionalized Patriots Daynamed for  the state holiday when the Boston Marathon takes place each spring.

Before the bombing, in the movie’s portrayal, Bauman was a twenty-something working-class Red Sox-loving goofball. He works as a Costco deli employee and lives at home with his clichéd, sprawling, brawling Beantown family, who spend more time at the bars than is good for them. That’s especially true of Mom, played by Miranda Richardson, who we first meet falling off a stool at the bar where Jeff goes to watch the ball game with his buddies.

Jeff’s fecklessness has led to his the latest break from his goal-directed girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who complains that Jeff “never shows up.” The goal-driven Erin is running the marathon, and this time, Jeff decides this time he will show up, waiting with a home-made sign at the finish line. Well before Erin reaches the Boylston Street finish line, the first of two bombs go off. Three people died and sixteen people lost limbs in the bombings but Bauman became its most famous victim. 

That status was thanks to an emblematic Associated Press photograph of him in a wheel chair, torniquets around his shredded legs, accompanied by a cowboy-hatted rescue worker. Later, when Bauman awoke from surgery to amputate his legs, he helped the police by identifying one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The victim became “kind of a symbol to a lotta people,” as his father (Clancy Brown) tells him in the movie. Specifically, he became a symbol of resilience, a representation of the “Boston Strong” civic boosterism campaign created in the wake of the bombings.

Unprepared for his celebrity, doped on pain-killers, Bauman is confused and disturbed that people find his loss heroic. When he’s pushed out in his wheelchair into sports arenas and stadiums, the cheering crowds trigger flashbacks to the bombing day. Oprah wants to interview him and his mother is  excited by the fame. Strangers either congratulate or occasionally hassle him in bars. Throughout, the camera’s closeness — in the bathroom, in bed, getting in and out of cars — emphasizes Jeff’s awkwardness with his new body, and underscores the disconnection between Bauman’s isolation and the media upbeat hype.

Green, the one-time art house wunderkind (George Washington, All the Real Girls), who became better known for directing stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, and HBO’s Eastbound and Down) colours strictly within the lines.  His film is loose and episodic, muddling along, much as Jeff does, between progress and relapse, with occasional digressions for humor or pathos. Stronger’s main assets are the performances by Gyllenhaal, as a simple guy struggling with everyone complicated expectations, and Maslany as his scrappy fiancé, struggling against her instincts to take the place of Bauman’s unfit mother.

A key turning point comes when Jeff meets one of the volunteers who helped save him, the cowboy-hatted man in the photograph, Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz). Arredondo is a  man who had suffered his own losses, and his philosophical equanimity serves as a model for Jeff.

Bauman’s maturity arrives about the time he stands up on his prosthetic legs and is about to become a father.  When a rush of Boston Red Sox fans feel the need to express their gratitude to him, Jeff is gracious because it’s obviously important to them. Sometimes you’ve got to accept that you’re a symbol or, with great trauma comes great responsibility.

Green’s movie has a similar ambivalence about its inspirational function, though it feels less a social critique than a reluctant acquiescence of convention. For those of you who want inspiration, here it is. And for those who are uncomfortable about the commodification of tragedy, you’re right, but acceptance of others’ imperfections is part of the path to recovery

Stronger. Directed by David Gordon Green. Screenplay, John Pollono, based on the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter.  Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson.

Stronger can be seen at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Cineplex Varsity, Cineplex Empress Walk and Silvercity Yonge-Eglinton.