Last Christmas, in his grossly exploitative vanity project Patriots Day, Dorchester-born actor/producer Mark Wahlberg cast himself as the hero of 2013’s horrific Boston Marathon bombing. Playing Sgt. Tommy Saunders in director Peter Berg’s procedural, Wahlberg’s completely fictional character was not only present for every big moment—from witnessing the blasts at the finish line to discovering Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding inside a boat in a Watertown backyard—but also offered homespun advice to the FBI agents in charge of the case. Hell, even David Ortiz stopped to shake Wahlberg’s hand at Fenway Park just before the slugger delivered his iconic “This is our fucking city” speech. It is our fucking city, and we deserved a hell of a lot better than that tasteless cash-in on a tragedy. And now we have it.
Mind you, director David Gordon Green’s Stronger, which has been adapted from the memoir penned by bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (and his co-writer Bret Witter), could have easily become the kind of hagiographic portrait of a person overcoming adversity that you’d expect to find on the Lifetime network. However, the intimate, character-driven script by John Pollono presents Bauman as a deeply flawed young man who’s wildly uncomfortable with the heroic spotlight that’s been shone on him by the media and public. As anyone who’s familiar with Green’s eclectic directing career can attest, the Texan filmmaker is right at home crafting portraits of deeply flawed men, in both dramas (from his acclaimed debut, 2000’s George Washington, to 2014’s Manglehorn) and comedies (from 2008’s Pineapple Express to 15 episodes of HBO’s Eastbound & Down).
Stronger is no different. It’s easy to take Jake Gyllenhaal for granted. An Oscar nominee in his mid-20s for his co-starring role in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, the actor portraying Bauman has spent the past dozen years bouncing between big budget studio fare like 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and smaller-scale indie projects like 2013’s little-seen Enemy. But his dedication to craft comes into sharp focus under the watchful lens of Green and Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer on all four of director Steve McQueen’s pictures, including Best Picture-winner 12 Years a Slave and next year’s Widows).
Although both Patriots Day and Stronger utilize the marathon bombing as the framing device for the stories they’re telling, Green’s film doesn’t rely on the tragedy as the primary focus. Rather, it’s the random backdrop that sets the man-child on a journey toward recovery: As he gradually learns to walk on artificial limbs after losing both of his legs, he also takes his first steps toward growing up—and Gyllenhaal’s tremendous performance allows you to follow along during each pivotal step.
It helps that Gyllenhaal’s character seldom feels isolated. Bauman, then a 27-year-old deli counter worker at Costco, was waiting at the race’s finish line to cheer for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley, a young woman who the film takes pains to let us know he was rarely there for, except at this worst possible moment. And as strong as Gyllenhaal’s work is, the work by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany (star of TV’s Orphan Black) is, well, stronger. Hurley sacrifices a tremendous amount, from her job to her family, to be at Bauman’s side during his long road to recovery—and their bumpy route toward making a relationship work.
It’s a story that could have quickly descended into cliche, especially during the many scenes set in the cramped Chelmsford apartment where Bauman still lives with his mother, Patty (British actress Miranda Richardson), an alcoholic who’s suspicious of the woman who’s moved into her home. However, Green’s choice to keep the focus on the struggling couple lends the picture an intimacy that pays huge emotional dividends; Green frequently stays on the faces of Bauman and Hurley, keeping the world and people around them in shallow focus.
A great example of this comes during the painfully effective scene when Bauman’s bandages are first being removed. Green holds his camera tight on the duo as the doctors and nurses (many of them played by the actual people who assisted with the real Bauman’s recovery) remain a blur in the background. And Green stays with this approach even as Pollono’s screenplay focuses on the mundane details of the recovery, such as how Bauman learns to maneuver once-simple tasks like using a toilet.
Moments like these keep the film grounded. Green could have easily presented Bauman as a fictional construct like Sgt. Saunders, an “inspiring” figure who serves as a hero, but the man he reveals is no saint; instead, Gyllenhaal’s Bauman is simply a person who was at the right place at the wrong time. Filled with imperfections that most of us can identify with, Bauman becomes more than the bloodied, shell-shocked face at the finish line, or the smiling young man who waved a flag from the ice before a Bruins game and threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. He may have lost his footing, but his humanity’s intact.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Kate Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Tony Viveiros, Patricia Ross, James LeBlanc and Carlos Sanz. Written by John Pollono, based on the book Stronger, by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. Directed by David Gordon Green. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.