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On 15 April 2013 Jeff Bauman was at the finish line of the Boston Marathon to win back his girlfriend. He was next to the bomb when it exploded; he lost both his legs.
An image of his rescue went viral, and Bauman was thrust unwillingly into the spotlight. He became the face of the Boston Strong movement, of a city clinging to hope and love in a time when despair would have been easy.
Now, three years after Bauman published his memoir, David Gordon Green (Our Brand is Crisis) has brought his story to the big screen. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals) as Jeff and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) as his girlfriend Erin, Stronger is a beautifully nuanced and profoundly human telling of an otherwise tragic story.
At its core, Stronger is not a film about terror; it’s about trauma and the messiness of recovery. It tells of one family’s battle with an event that shattered their personal lives and left them picking at the pieces.
The film is technically precise, merging striking cinematography and an unimposing score into an emotionally wrought piece of cinema. Green’s direction is commanding, but it’s his use of stillness that sets Stronger apart. The heartrending moments do not come from the chaotic bombing, but from lingering close-ups and a focus on the mundane.
Green holds the camera on characters not directly involved in the action. He embraces long takes that emulate continued pain. With the camera still and the focus unerring, Stronger asks the audience to endure Bauman and his family’s discomfort. We watch as wounds are redressed, families bicker, as using the toilet becomes a demanding task. Stronger emphasises how terror and trauma deeply affects the everyday.
The film’s real power, though, lies in its interest in the morally grey. Narratives surrounding trauma often go one of two ways: as a horrific account of tragedy or as an inspiring tale of the heroes who overcame it. Stronger accepts neither of these as the whole truth.
Its characters are normal people who, despite surviving harrowing events, are not perfect. Green asks the audience: what makes one a hero? Why do we cling to “inspirational” humans for hope? Is it unfair? Is it humane?
Stronger is not a film about terror; it’s about trauma, loss and the messiness of recovery
These questions are amplified by a host of powerful performances. Maslany exudes warmth and raw emotion as Bauman’s girlfriend Erin. She grounds the film, reminding viewers of the love and humanity at stake. Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow) plays Jeff’s mother Patty with tender nuance. Searching for meaning in her son’s loss, Patty represents the warped yet well-intentioned Boston Strong movement.
In a particularly gut-wrenching scene, Patty drunkenly reads letters from supporters after Jeff expresses his fatigue at being the face of the bombing. The moment is Stronger at its core: a non-judgmental exploration of the ways human beings cope with trauma.
Stronger is a reminder that recovery is not black and white. Jeff Bauman did nothing but stand in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he was hailed a hero before he had a chance to decipher his own emotions. Stronger is a reminder that no one is the perfect trauma victim — but that doesn’t mean their story is any less worthy of being told.