There’s a fine line between getting chewed out by your Costco supervisor one day and having the country claim you as a hero the next…Just ask Jeff Bauman. On April 15, 2013 Jeff was near the finish line for the Boston Marathon, holding a handmade sign in support of his runner-girlfriend Erin. When she was still about a mile away, two bombs went off, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Mr. Bauman lost his legs that day.
When Jeff regained consciousness in the hospital (after two surgeries), he was able to provide the FBI a detailed physical description of one of the bombers. His information led directly to the identification of one of the brothers responsible for this atrocity. Immediately, Jeff was hailed as a hero – both locally and nationally. Stronger does a nice job of telling Jeff’s story and how his life unfolded over the next few months.
Director David Gordon Green is responsible for such disparate film projects as Our Brand Is Crisis, Manglehorn, and Pineapple Express. He may seem an odd choice to adapt the film from the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (screenplay by John Pollono), but the story is so moving and heart-warming, and the three lead actors are so good that we immediately connect with each of them.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff, Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) plays Erin and Miranda Richardson tears up the screen as Jeff’s mother, Patty. Mr. Gyllenhaal is remarkable (as usual) as the working class local boy who truly believes his lucky seat and beer determine success or failure for his beloved Bruins and Red Sox. His initial portrayal is spot on for the normal guy who seems caught in the web of eternal teenage mentality so common in the male species. As he struggles with his new life challenges, he strives to do better, but simply doesn’t understand why he is viewed as a hero. He doesn’t particularly embrace what comes with the label, at least early on. Ms. Maslany is terrific as the guilt-ridden, confused-yet-strong, on-again-off-again girlfriend to Jeff. She fights through being treated as an outsider by the family, and the daily grind of caring for a guy who needs constant help. The twice Oscar nominated Miranda Richardson is unlike we have ever seen her on screen. Despite being an Englishwoman, Ms. Richardson captures the Boston sauciness (in more ways than one) and takes no ‘stuff’ from anyone. Her performance is stunning.
Of course, at its core, this is an inspirational story about how a normal guy became a hero after a tragic event. The recent Mark Wahlberg film Patriots Day focused on the aftermath and investigation, while here the attention is on the emotional story of one man and one family. We see the recreation of the flag-waving at the Boston Bruins game, and the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park. We also see the obstacles faced when rehabilitation and care-giving becomes too much to bear. Carlos Arredondo and his cowboy hat and heroics are also given much-deserved space here. His back story is heart-breaking, and a reminder that everyone has a story, and each of us can be a hero in some way. Since life isn’t a movie, the realities are that Jeff and Erin have since divorced, but that in no way reduces the impact of their touching story that inspires each of us to be stronger.