To quote the title of a popular poem by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is “A Regular Sort of Guy”. A blue-collar worker from Boston (a “chicken roaster” to be precise), there’s nothing he likes more than sinking a few beers with his buddies while watching a ballgame and chewing the cud about “faggots”. “I’m down with the homo’s,” the lady doth protest. “My boss is a gay.” That is until his legs are taken away from him, literally, when terrorists detonate bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon where he is cheering on his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
Boom! “There is no way to salvage anything below the knee,” says a matter-of-fact medic. Boom! “Who’s going to hire him without any legs?” asks a concerned family member. Boom! How is he going to rebuild his life and manage the day to day – the toilet, sex, his drunken mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) with whom he still lives? Boom! How is he going to cope with his fifteen minutes of fame thrust upon him by a pack of media vultures hungry for a headline and holding out for a hero? “I am a hero for standing there just getting my legs blown off?” he asks incredulously.
And boom! How are his friends and family – “a bunch of fucking disasters” he “wouldn’t trade in for anything” – going to adjust to “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”? Or as his ex-girlfriend bluntly put it, “This didn’t just happen to you.“ It also happened to a “huge circle of people who altered their lives to orbit around you.”
Amid all the boom and gloom, thankfully there are a few Basil Brush “boom booms” in the form of gallows humour as Jeff struggles to navigate a path through the shards of his shattered life. “You’re sitting on my legs,” he chides Erin for planking her bahookie at the bottom of his hospital bed. And his bedtime, lights out conversation with his mother is as far removed from The Waltons as you could possibly get: “Go to fucking sleep, ma!” Which she does, after another slug of wine.
Directed by David Gordon Green (Our Brand Is Crisis) and written by John Pollono, Stronger is based upon the autobiography of the same name by the real-life Jeff Bauman and the eight-time New York Times bestselling co-author Bret Witter. And though the main thrust of the plot is a generic road-to-recovery movie, this is no Rocky-themed, cliche-ridden, happy-ever-after tale where hope trumps evil and America is made “great again”. Rather, it is a more sensitive and slow-moving portrayal of what happens to communities targeted by terrorist attacks when the media circus rolls out of town.
For the most part, it succeeds. But where it falls short is that everything looks and sounds a little too clean cut: the dialogue is too polished, the action is too staged and with the exception of Gyllenhaal, Maslany and a handful of others (notably Carlos Sanz who plays the real-life Carlos who saved Jeff’s life), the performances are too mannered. That said, there is enough meat on the bones (pardon the awful pun) to satisfy the senses. And kudos to Green and Pollono for keeping the flag-waving optimism to a minimum. How do people like Jeff and Carlos (whose son died in Iraq) soldier on? As the latter says, “the truth is I don’t understand.” But one strategy is to heed the advice of Jeff’s baseball hero Pedro Martinez: “Aim high!”
Video courtesy of: Lionsgate Films UK