Directed by David Gordon Green (Eastbound & Down, Pineapple Express) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger tells the real life story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and the struggles he faced after losing both legs in the deadly 2013 attack. With a screenplay from John Pollono and inspired by Bauman’s own accounts, the film does a decent enough job in bringing this hugely affecting story to the screen, but sadly can’t seem to resist the need for schmaltz and sentimentalism, which if one was completely honest, ultimately lets it down a little.
Gyllenhaal’s amiable lowly Walmart employee Bauman has recently been dumped by on-and-off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) for being a perpetual let-down throughout their relationship. On the eve of the Boston Marathon, which Erin is due to run, Jeff informs her that he plans to be at the finishing line waiting for her, no matter what it takes, and promises that he can change if she agree to give him just one last chance to prove it.
When disaster strikes and Jeff is injured in the bomb attack, a visibly distraught Erin runs to his bedside along with the rest of his extended family – however she soon starts to feel partly to blame for the terrible injuries he has sustained. Meanwhile, amputee Jeff becomes a reluctant national hero after helping the FBI identify one of the bombers, a title he soon grows uncomfortable with. Back living in a cramped apartment with his heavy-drinking mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), and paraded in front of TV studios and invited to every sporting event going, Jeff soon grows tired and suffocated by those around him and feels undeserving of the adulation heaped upon him by the city of Boston.
Gyllenhaal manages a faultless turn as Bauman, showing just how much of an accomplished actor he has become in the last decade. Managing to strike the right balance between being measured, yet deeply moving, the actor puts in one of the most incredible performances of his career, second only to his turn in Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014). Maslany is not only believable but, also deeply likeable as Erin, while Richardson whose working-class Boston drawl is near perfect, is as brilliant as ever.
Green, and screenwriter John Pollono, offer a fairly conventional narrative arc, and are sadly unable to avoid the usual tropes and clichés attached to these kinds of projects. While the story is without a doubt a deeply moving one, one cannot help but feel that the writers could have easy avoided the needless sentimental shtick in favour of a more pragmatic approach. Having said that, Stronger does a good job of conveying a sense of hope and forgivingness amongst the chaos of senseless violence and for that alone, Green and co should be commended. Perhaps not the most original offering in the current crop of awards season hopefuls, but Gyllenhaal is surely a shoe-in for an Oscar nod, and could even be deserving of a win.