It’s hard these days—when terrible things come at us so quickly, one after the other, without a break or a breath—to feel ready to memorialize anything. The Boston Marathon bombing happened only four years ago, and despite the fact that we’ve had several lifetimes of sadness between then and now, it feels like it just occurred. Are we ready for a movie about it?
What’s that? This is the SECOND movie about it? Patriot’s Day came out earlier this year? What? Why! Thankfully, Stronger isn’t another grubby Mark Wahlberg movie glossing up a real-life tragedy—instead, it’s a close study of a guy and a family who went through some shit. The guy, Jeff Bauman, became the face of the Boston Marathon bombing after a picture of his rescue from the scene landed on the front pages of newspapers across the world. He was hunched in a wheelchair and dazed, which is precisely how Jake Gyllenhaal portrays him in Stronger.
What makes Stronger different from other schmaltzy, rah-rah Americana movies is that while it’s about the marathon bombing, it’s not really about the marathon bombing. The moment of the blast isn’t hyped up for drama. It happens off to the side, and it’s people’s reactions to the tragedy that are in focus. Whole scenes are shot in close-up of a single character’s face, which feels intensely personal to the point of becoming intrusive. It’s an effective trick, since Bauman was a man struggling with his own recovery—he lost both legs—while also being claimed as the symbolic victim of a national tragedy.
Gyllenhaal does his very best acting here, which is... okay. Tatiana Maslany as Erin, Bauman’s estranged, exhausted girlfriend, is the one to watch. (If you’re not already obsessed with her from Orphan Black, it’s time to get on board.) Stronger only drifts into self-congratulatory territory a couple of times. The rest of the time—when it’s just the story of a guy and his family—it’s great. Even if it does feel soon.