Based on a True Story: That phrase – Hollywood-speak for bullshit – can put audiences on guard for fact-fudging and bogus uplift. Not so with Stronger, a powerhouse biopic that sidesteps the pitfalls of the genre in favor of keeping it real, warts and all. Kudos to a brilliant, hilariously unexpected performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a beer-guzzling, Boston boyo who lost both his legs, just above the knee, in the 2013 Marathon bombing. For director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express), the way to truly honor the man is by not turning him into a cardboard saint – and that makes all the difference. Based on the bestseller by Bauman and Bret Witter and blessed with a nuanced script by John Pollono, the film makes sure that tears, when they come, are fully earned.
When we first meet the pre-bombing Jeff, he’s what his brawling friends and family would call a fucking handful. Barely holding on to his job as a chicken roaster at Costco, he parties hard with his Sox-and-Bruins worshipping buds, often to the detriment of his on-again/off-again girlfriend with Erin Hurley (a superb Tatiana Maslany). She’s learned the hard way not to rely on Jeff for support. So when Erin runs the Marathon, she has no expectations of him showing up to cheer her on, despite his drunken promises. This time, however, Jeff does; he even a sign he made for her. Then the bomb goes off, and a photo of Bauman, his legs shattered, being helped by strangers becomes a symbol of Boston strong.
Those are the headlines. But Stronger refuses to ride on that media blaze of glory, even when its subject gains more notoriety for helping the police identify one of the bombers. Celebrity doesn’t sit well with Jeff. Through a grueling rehab process in which the pain of being fitted with prosthetic legs is just as agonizing as the hopelessness that overtakes him, he can’t make peace with the hero label pasted on him. Not just by his friends and hard-drinking mother Patty (a splendid Miranda Richardson) – who can’t believe her son has turned down an interview with Oprah – but by a public that wants to get close to him, take photos, shake his hand. To the man on the street, Jeff means the terrorists didn’t win. “Well, at least they got one on the scoreboard,” he replies to a stunned fan, pointing to what’s left of his legs. The man’s irreverent humor – black, no sugar – gets him through many setbacks.
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For the rest, he relies on Erin. When he’s traumatized by what should be a dream come true – throwing the first pitch at a Sox game at Fenway Park – she’s there to push his wheelchair, to rally his spirit. And when they have sex for the first time after the accident, her passion is unfaked. Is Erin acting out of love, guilt, a combination of both? When she becomes pregnant with their daughter Nora, Jeff manifests his terror at the prospect of fatherhood by lashing out. This accident, the movie suggests, really happened to both of them. And though the couple divorced earlier this year (something the movie omits), it’s clear their bond is unbreakable. Maslany, an Emmy winner for Orphan Black, gives Erin the complexity and respect the role deserves.
Stronger is like that – it’s a movie that’s allergic to saccharine manipulation or easy sentimentality. Yes, a few cherries get placed on top as the film weaves its way toward its ending. But Gyllenhaal even dodges even those bullets, and does nothing to tidy up Jeff’s disability for mainstream consumption. The character lets fly with his feelings, and not just the acceptable ones. Gyllenhaal is one of the finest and most intuitive actors of his generation (see Brokeback Mountain, End of Watch and Nightcrawler), and his triumph in Stronger is letting us see a man who won’t let a tragedy define him. When the movie ends, we sense a life still going on – a man still jumping hurdles, still ready for anything.