Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to surprise his ex-girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), by heading to the finish line of the Boston marathon to see her cross the line. When a terrorist bomb explodes Jeff loses both his legs. Due to horrific photos of him at the bombing which quickly become iconic, he is held up by a hero by some and a prime example of ‘Boston Strong’. However, Jeff initially riles against the idea of himself as a hero, struggling with the fact that a city in need of catharsis desperately wants him to be an inspirational figure.
As the film follows him through his recovery, it’s keen to show that heroism isn’t the simple thing we’d like it to be. Stronger isn’t afraid to say that Bauman is a bit of an ass, and when he’s being self-destructive and filled with guilt and loathing, it would be too easy and pitying just to say it’s all because of his injuries. The movie also shows the complications of his relationships with other people, including his alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson) and most particularly his ex, Erin. She sticks around following the bombing, but the film smartly questions whether she’s there because she wants to be or because of guilt, and whether it’s a good thing for either of them.
Gyllenhaal and Maslany are great in the central roles, ensuring that a film that wants to be harsh and anguished never loses sight of the humanity at its centre. It allows it to explore different ideas about heroism and bravery rather than going for the easy answers. That said, it does make a few mawkish missteps towards the end, which may be understandable but doesn’t quite fit with much of the rest of the film.
Stronger isn’t an easy watch, and it doesn’t want to flinch at some of the ugliness and complex reality of what many would like to reduce to platitudes like ‘inspirational’ and ‘heroic’. It’s not a unique film – indeed it seems to take particular inspiration from Born On The Fourth Of July – but it is a well-made and worthwhile one.
Overall Verdict: Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany anchor a biopic that doesn’t shy away from pain and wants to show that being a ‘hero’ isn’t always what we think it is.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac