I vividly remember the events of the Boston Marathon bombing. Back in my previous life, I was live to air producing the news program as the final suspect was tracked down. It was a thrilling situation to follow, as the police closed in so swiftly on a man believed to have brought such terror to the city. So I was intrigued when I heard they were making a film detailing this event, and more so that Jake Gyllenhaal was signed on. Yet does that powerful material successfully translate into a two-hour film?
Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal, ‘Nocturnal Animals’, 'Southpaw') is a pretty average guy - he works at Costco, loves baseball, and is a bit of a shit boyfriend. In an attempt to win back his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany, TV's 'Orphan Black', ‘The Vow’) for the umpteenth time, he surprises her with a sign at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that she’s running. Yet disaster strikes, and Jeff loses both legs, but survives with his life. Celebrated as a hero for helping police to identify the bombers, Jeff struggles with his disability and the fame his mother (Miranda Richardson, 'Churchill', 'Testament Of Youth') wants more than he does himself.
Jeff is an actual survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, and co-wrote a book on his experience. ‘Stronger’ is therefore based on a true story, with some cinematic liberties thrown in. The film was also produced by Gyllenhaal under his new company Nine Stories. All of that makes what I’m about to say all the more difficult.
‘Stronger’ is a very mediocre telling of a story that exemplifies the best of what came out of the Boston Marathon bombing. We struggle to connect with Jeff, initially because we meet him just minutes before the attack and barely have the time to relate to him or feel any sympathy for the character, and later because his actions frequently make him unlikeable. On screen, his understandable self-pity and eventual destructive attitude is often taken out on Erin, worsened by his family’s alcoholism, which is never really addressed. The character is frequently trying to present a macho, strong attitude to his family and to the community, rather than asking for help, and so we never see much in the way of struggle or accomplishment - rather than seeing his progressive rehabilitation, we only witness it when there’s something wrong, or when an argument takes place. The screenplay tries to capture some of real-life Bauman’s wit, but not enough to want to rally behind the character.
Gyllenhaal’s portrayal comes off as two-dimensional and fabricated, not a real person who endured great suffering and trauma.
Even Gyllenhaal’s natural charm doesn’t win you over. His portrayal is suitable, but Jeff comes off as two-dimensional and fabricated, not a real person who endured great suffering and trauma. On the other hand, Miranda Richardson takes the character of Jeff’s mother Patty to the other extreme - the borderline caricature of an overbearing mother. The only cast members who seem to strike the right notes are Tatiana Maslany, whose portrayal of Erin is one of the more refined elements of the film as a strong woman willing to call Jeff out for all of his bullshit, and Carlos Sanz as Carlos, the man who saved Jeff’s life. The first time that Carlos and Jeff meet is one of the most affecting moments of the film - it’s just a shame it occurs more than three-quarters of the way through.
The cast are only marginally to blame for these portrayals. What they’ve been given to work with is sloppy, with John Pollono’s screenplay an entirely underwhelming affair. His scope is way off; for an event so large, the microcosm he chooses to focus on seems ill-fitting and indulgent, even selfish. Yes, Jeff’s struggle was symbolic, but his life was also more involved than an episode of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’. The script lacks real emotion, real people, and real empathy.
The biggest sin of ‘Stronger’ is that it misses the mark on what was such an unforgettable event. With so much potential for gritty, raw hardship and elated triumph, this story has instead been polished within an inch of existence, forcing it to rely on amplified tumult. It trivialises the drama, and almost completely neglects the big picture. For an event that incited countless tears, the soft side of ‘Stronger’ is significantly lacking.