- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
Whenever national tragedy strikes, there are stories, moments, and images that come to define the moment and become a symbol for people to rally around. Sadly, we just experienced the worst gun-related tragedy in the history of the United States recently in Las Vegas when a man opened fire from his hotel room on a group of concertgoers below, killing over 50 people and injuring 500 more. There will be emotional stories to come out from that over the next several days and weeks. It’s coincidentally fitting, then, that Stronger, a dramatic retelling of Jeff Bauman’s account of the bombing of the Boston Marathon and its aftermath back in 2013, comes out at this time of the year. This film, from director David Gordon Green, peers behind the symbols and slogans, looking at the harder work required in personal recovery.
In the days, weeks, and months after the Boston Marathon bombing, “Boston Strong” became a rallying cry for many, most notably for the local sports teams; in particular, the Boston Red Sox, who would go on to win the World Series that year (Go Sox!). The ties between the sports teams and the fans are deeply woven into the fabric of the city of Boston and the greater New England area.
This deep connection is perfectly exemplified throughout the film, but especially early on when Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) begs to get out of work early at Costco so he can get to his good luck seat in time for the Red Sox game. The way he talks about it, I expected it to be seats at Fenway like he had season tickets or something, but it turns out to be at the local watering hole that his friends and family gather at for games, including his mom, Patty (Miranda Richardson). It’s here during the game that he runs into Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), his on-again/off-again girlfriend, raising money for running in the Boston Marathon.
Jeff’s attempt to reconnect with Erin ends up being the reason that he is at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs go off, which leads to him losing the lower half of both of his legs in the blast. An amputee now from just above the knees, Jeff faces a long road of rehab, both physically and emotionally. His first-hand account of the bombing also proves to be instrumental in tracking down the Tsarnev brothers responsible for the attack. Coupled with an iconic picture of him being carried by a man named Carlos in a cowboy hat ending up on the front pages of major newspapers, Jeff quickly turns into the face of “Boston Strong.”
It proves to be an ill-fitting mantle for him to carry as the mascot for “Boston Strong.” For the majority of people, that phrase has meaning and is symbolic, just as Jeff is symbolic to them. But that meaning to them is separate and apart from what Jeff actually experienced. Jeff doesn’t feel strong. He struggles with the awkward celebrity status foisted upon him by this act of terror. Strangers come up to him for pictures, yell out “Boston Strong!” as they pass by, and make demands on his time they otherwise would not. And for the most part he can do little more than give a thumbs up. The pressure of being a symbol to people when he doesn’t even have his own life under control proves to be too much for him, and it’s only after a truly humiliating moment and a meeting with someone soon after that he is finally able to take some control and assert some initiative over his own narrative, giving added meaning to the Stronger titling of the movie.
While all of this is happening, Erin also has her own set of obstacles to deal with. Obviously, there is a deep level of guilt that she feels as the only reason Jeff was there was to cheer her on, in an attempt to win her back, after they had broken up two or three times previously. The two share a connection and a bond, and the film grapples with and works through the difficult question of staying with someone out of a mix of guilt, duty, obligation, and love. For the most part, Jeff never comes across as the one playing the blame game on her in an attempt to get her to stay with him. In fact, when she first says she’s sorry, through tears, he won’t even hear it. But it’s not an easy road for the two of them, because of the physical difficulties he faces, the emotional baggage between the two of them, and the tension between her and Jeff’s mother. And there is also the fact that Jeff is not a perfect guy who has it all together, and he soon falls into old habits as he readjusts to life.
Stronger is a strong movie because of the levels that it works on. Love is stronger. Jeff has to learn to become stronger personally than he was in the past. There’s strength in numbers, demonstrated by the friends and family around Jeff, as crazy as some of them may be. Stronger means having the courage to put in the hard work, either in physical therapy or in becoming a better human being. Being stronger is required if something like “Boston Strong” is to mean anything more than a slogan. A slogan isn’t the inspiration, there has to be something behind it. Jeff has to be a stronger person to learn how to accept people coming up to him with their stories and their well-wishes. It’s an important lesson to be reminded of, especially in the wake of more and more national tragedies.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars