Stronger could easily have leaned on its ultra handsome movie star to sound off a few patriotic one-liners while heroic cliches were ticked off one at a time, and that movie would have made money – possibly more money than the actual Stronger did. Instead, the real Stronger takes a much more interesting approach: it admits that its central character, real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing Jeff Bauman, is not a hero. He’s just a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but a picture of him captured at that wrong time made him an icon and helped unite his country in a time of grief and confusion.
Jeff Bauman was just an ordinary guy. He worked at Costco, he lived and was bullied by his Mom, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend. Erin broke up with him repeatedly because he was just never really there for her, and so of course the one time that he does show up, he gets blown up to bits.
Stronger doesn’t care much about the crime or about the terrorism; it follows a lone survivor who struggles to put his life back together afterward. Had Jeff Bauman lost his legs in a car crash, no one would call him brave, or a hero, because no one would be watching. But as the face of Strength and Hope in the war against terror, Bauman has to handle public scrutiny even on his darkest days.
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most versatile actors of his age working today, and this is another unglamourous, conflicted character that he pulls of winningly. The anguish and painful contradictions he manages to convey make the movie sometimes hard to watch. But Gyllenhaal isn’t alone. Tatiana Maslany plays Jeff’s on again, off again love interest, Erin, and Stronger is as much her story as it is his. Unlike Patriots Day, Stronger isn’t about an act of terrorism, it’s about two people scraping their lives back together after a major, seismic event, and about how that catastrophe doesn’t really erase the problems that existed before it, even though it kind of feels like should. Most movies wouldn’t bother to make Maslany’s character so important, so human, but Stronger doesn’t take the safe route or the obvious one. Jeff Bauman became a symbol when he appeared in a photograph that day, but in every moment before the camera’s click, and every moment after it, he is just a man, and Erin is the woman too conscientious to abandon him in his time of need, but too smart to buy into the hero nonsense. When everyone else sees him as an emblem of Boston Strong, she sees him as the same old flawed guy he’s always been.
A brilliant ensemble cast fleshes out Stronger in surprising ways. This isn’t about flag waving or triumphing over terrorism, it’s a relationship drama that dares to peer down dark corners unflinchingly.