When the bomb explodes at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon in David Gordon Green’s Stronger, we see it from a distance – in fact, from the perspective not of our protagonist, but from the woman he’s there to cheer on. The contrast between that portrayal of the explosion and the Bay-like fetishistic detail of last winter’s Boston bombing movie Patriots Day is striking, and to be fair, it’s not that we don’t see what happens in that moment eventually. It’s that Stronger waits until we’ve earned the right to observe that private memory, until we’ll see Jeff Bauman as a human, and not just as human carnage. And that approach, that interest in personality over symbolism, is what makes Stronger so much better than your average based-on-an-inspirational-true-story situation.
It helps that, unlike just about anyone in Patriots Day, we know Bauman as a person before we know him as a victim. He is, we’re told, “a chicken roaster from Costco” who’s Boston to his bones; in the film’s first scene, he ducks out of cleaning up a mess he made at work because he has to get to his lucky bar stool to drink his lucky beer. “The Sox lost two in a row on account of me,” he explains. He’s a funny, charming character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal with all the breezy charisma he’s got (which is saying something), and John Pollono’s script is filled with bar-hang chatter (much of it lobbed and landed by legendary Boston stand-up Lenny Clarke, as “Uncle Bob”) and regional/vernacular humor (“Can you fix the chirpy-chirpy?” his ma asks, re: the low-battery warning of the smoke alarm).
That sense of humor takes a turn towards gallows after Jeff loses both legs in the bombing at the marathon; after he wakes up, one of first things he writes is “Lt. Dan.” (Later, when ma objects to his girlfriend moving in with them because it’s a “small apartment for three people,” he corrects her: “Well, technically, it’s only like two and a half.”) He’s one of those guys who likes to beat everyone to the joke, so no one’s ever ill at ease, but the film peers beyond that okey-dokey veneer. Early on, for example, Gordon gives us a long scene of nurses and doctors changing the dressing on his legs, lingering on this relatively simple procedure, staying on his face all the way through as he experiences a heretofore unknown level of straight-up agony.
He’s got Erin (Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany) at his bedside during that scene, and the complexity of their on-again, off-again relationship is perhaps Stronger’s strongest element. We get a hint of it right away, as she explains to his boss that he was at the finish line for her to prove himself (they were currently on an “off”) – it was the one time he “showed up” for her, and then this happened, so she’s understandably racked with guilt. And what’s driving her becomes a fascinating question: is it real love, or a sense of responsibility (both to him, and for what happened)? Recovery is complicated, and he’s not always good to her, or as open as he needs to be (note the fear and shame he packs into a single syllable answer about closing a shower curtain). But the intimacy between them, in the scene where she finally, really touches him, is overwhelming.
In the days and weeks following the bombing, Jeff becomes a symbol for the city’s resilience and strength – he’s “Boston Strong,” he’s told, so often that he begins to question it: “I’m a hero for standin’ there and gettin’ my legs blown off?” When he enters rehab, a TV reporter asks Jeff, “Are you Boston Strong?,” and he responds with a glassy-eyed thumbs-up, so as not to disrupt his inspiring recovery narrative. He insists on keeping his pain and uncertainty from everyone – his family, his friends, his girl – and there’s a scene of him in his bathroom, screaming into a towel after taking a nasty fall, that sums up that feeling of hopelessness and loneliness in a way full pages of dialogue couldn’t.
It’s a more effective scene than the later, over-the-top glimpse of Jeff crying at Erin’s door, the kind of capital-A acting moment that most viewers will expect from something like Stronger. But it’s a better movie than that (and better than its twinkly, faux-emotional score too), and a reminder that the movies that move us to tears are often not even on the same Venn diagram as “tear-jerkers.” Gyllenhaal’s most moving scene is his most complicated, when a tense conversation with a couple of InfoWars-reading, “false flag”-spouting jerk-offs leads to a full-on bar brawl, but one in which Jeff is left alone. “Fuckin’ hit ME!” he roars, pounding the bar and demanding attention, and participation, that he doesn’t get. That’s a scene you don’t expect in a movie like this, and if it does occasionally lean towards expectation and even cliché, there are enough moments like that to make Stronger worth seeking out.
“Stronger” is out Friday.