Boston Strong?

Hometown Hero Struggles in ‘Stronger

What makes a hero, and who decides who is one? Director David Gordon Green sets out to answer this question in Stronger, which follows Jeff Bauman, a resident of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, who lost his legs from the knees down in the terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Based on Bauman’s autobiography of the same title, Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to return to normalcy following the bombings. Bauman is a passive, affable man-child who still lives with his mother (Miranda Richardson). Notorious for not “showing up,” Bauman is called to action when he sees his on-and-off girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) at a bar. After learning she intends to run the marathon, Bauman springs into action, and shows up at the finish line the next day on an impulse to win her back, flourishing a bright poster for her. He also sees one of the bombers moments before the explosion.

The first act goes by quickly, not focusing too much on the recent, still-sensitive bombing. Gordon Green, best known for directing the comedy Pineapple Express, doesn’t quite know what narrative he wants to push, instead opting to touch on all of them, creating arcs on Bauman’s PTSD and the shaky relationships he has with his mother and Erin. His relationship with Erin, rekindled partly due to the suspension bridge effect, is never fully believable, as Erin ends up as Bauman’s babysitter as he slowly reverts back to his lazy, childish ways as an unmotivated couch potato.

In Boston, however, Bauman becomes a hometown hero and symbol of hope and resiliency. In his mind, it’s unearned praise—he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He isn’t “Bauman Strong” or “Boston Strong,” a theme touched on in the film. Few cities in the world have cultures that revolve so passionately around sports as much as Boston, and that culture is reflected in the movie, with the Bruins’s Gillette Stadium and the Red Sox’s Fenway Park playing the backdrop to pivotal moments in Bauman’s recovery.

When the city and heart of Boston stop getting incorporated, however, it’s noticeable. Most of the film ambles along for its two-hour runtime. The camera work is ordinary, and often distracting, as the shots and edits, like the narrative, don’t know what to focus on.

The film’s second half, which focuses on Bauman’s relationships with his mother and Erin, are set up without a payoff. The mother and Erin disappear altogether in the third act, a quick 20 minutes after Bauman realizes he needs to change his lifestyle. Gordon Green manages, somehow, to leave out how Bauman motivates himself to suddenly be the man he hasn’t been his entire life.

It’s challenging to review a film based on a true story, especially one involving an event so recent and etched in memory. But this story weighs itself down with its importance. Gyllenhaal and Maslany are, particularly in the final act, both given difficult emotional scenes, but perhaps too many, as the scenes feel unjustified and indulge in bathos.

Bauman’s story is inspiring, and is clearly an extremely difficult and unfocused time for him. Hopefully his life continues to improve as he heads toward a productive lifestyle. Too many narratives and an inconsistent tone provide the pitfalls to this sincere story. Unfortunately, none of the narratives reach their potentials.