By Mia Kernaghan
“Stronger” is a film that delves deeper than the 2013 news headlines on the Boston Marathon Bombings. It is the truth behind an irrevocable terrorist attack and what it takes for a nation, a city, a man to recover. Exposing us to the unvarnished aftermath of Jeff Bauman’s life, “Stronger” portrays the probity of a survivor who has lost both of his legs.
The film begins with Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, working an arduous job at Costco, living with his mother in a wedged apartment, and drinking his lucky beer so the Red Sox can win. As an attempt to ameliorate his relationship with his on-and-off girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), Bauman waits for her at the finish line of the marathon with a hand-made poster colored in marker.
A bomb of nails, ball bearings, and black powder goes off right beside him.
When Bauman wakes up in the hospital, clear tubes are down his throat, blood is matted in his hair, and both of his legs are amputated. He writes asking if Erin is okay, followed by noting that he saw the bomber seconds before the explosion.
Erin waits beside his hospital bed and when Bauman can finally speak, he tells her, “you’re sitting on my legs.”
Based on the true story and book written by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter, “Stronger” is something out of sight, something we don’t often see on screen but rather behind closed doors.
Director David Gordan Green incorporated several real life hospital staff with the actors in order for the film to be authentic. There’s a scene in particular when Bauman gets the bandages taken off of his amputated legs for the first time; the cadence of the doctor is real, the coaxing of the nurse is genuine. Erin sits with him as the procedure happens, their foreheads pressed together and mouths a hard line as Bauman attempts to suppress his screams and be a hero, be Boston Strong. It is beautiful and raw.
Perhaps the best part of all, Green and screen writer John Pollono create a poignant film with tender emotion that focuses primarily on Bauman’s strife rather than his heroism as a survivor. His life shifts as prioritization becomes recovery and resilience, taking medication, and making it to rehab appointments on time, if at all. The challenge is now getting up and down a flight of stairs from the second story of his mother’s apartment, living with crippling PTSD, and stifling his screams into bathroom towels so his mother doesn’t hear.
Actors Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Malsany bring this film to life with an awe-inspiring performance. They create something so palpably powerful yet fragile; an evident need for one another in order to live. It impossible not to experience the love, strain, self-disgrace and forgiveness on the other side of the screen as we watch the two sit at a diner and try again.
In 119 minutes, “Stronger” reveals the sacrifice of responsibility and the threat of deteriorating relationships, the plight behind the glory of resilience and how muscle memory can move you forward. The film is a reminder that strength in times of great calamity is often seen as achievable only because the initial disaster and the worthwhile result are presented rather than the process. Jeff Bauman shows us the crude means of recovery in “Stronger”; we are brought into a traumatic yet forgiving narrative and, man, is it magnificent.