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Interesting and mildly inspirational, but also kind of bland
After a tragedy occurs, telling the stories of the individuals affected is often the best way for others to understand and relate to what happened. That's what the 2017 biographical drama "Stronger" (R, 1:56) does with the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing and the story of victim Jeff Bauman. He only survived because another bystander, Carlos Arredondo, ran to the scene of the explosion, put tourniquets on both of Jeff's legs, placed him in a wheelchair and helped get him into an ambulance. A New York Times photo by Josh Haner, which showed Jeff in that wheelchair, with Carlos at his side, became iconic. Responding to widespread interest in his story, he joined forces with best-selling author Bret Witter to write what became the 2014 book "Stronger", which is the basis for this film.
Before the Marathon Bombing, Jeff Bauman (Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal) was an unremarkable, anonymous guy born and raised in Boston. He worked at Costco and loved his hometown sports teams especially the Red Sox to the point of superstition and even obsession. He lived in a modest apartment with his divorced alcoholic mother, Patty (Oscar nominee Miranda Richardson). Jeff was obsessed with local girl Erin Hurley (Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany), whom he had dated and who had already broken up with him three times. On the night of April 14, 2003, Jeff and Erin were still apart when she came into a neighborhood bar where Jeff and his friends were watching the Red Sox game on TV. He went over to talk to her, helped her get the other bar patrons to contribute to her effort to raise money by participating in the marathon and he promised to be there for her the next day at the finish line holding a sign.
The next day, as Jeff's waiting for Erin at the end of the course, a man bumps into him and Jeff turns to look at the guy who is walking away. Jeff looks down at something in the street. Then comes the explosion. Jeff finds himself on the ground lying in a pool of his own blood. Erin hears the sound ahead of her. She stops running, ducks into a local bar and sees on the TV a picture of Jeff, injured and being tended to by strangers. She rushes to the hospital, where Jeff's family and friends were also gathering. Jeff's father (Clancy Brown) fumes and even lashes out at Jeff's boss (Danny McCarthy) who shows up to offer help. After waiting anxiously, Jeff's loved ones learn that doctors had to amputate both legs above the knees. When he wakes up, not only does he manage to keep his sense of humor and his usual positive attitude (relatively speaking, of course), he's also able to give the FBI valuable information about the bombing.
Obviously, Jeff survives, but his life and the lives of those closest to him are changed forever. We see the pain and discomfort that Jeff's injuries cause him both in the hospital and when he finally gets to come home and we follow him as he adjusts to life without legs and begins the long and difficult recovery process. He receives gifts and well wishes from all over the world, he's greatly in demand for media interviews and he is given the opportunity to make public appearances at Bruins and Red Sox games. He goes along with much of it, but he really doesn't want any of it. He doesn't even want to meet with Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who saved his life. Jeff says that he doesn't want to be reminded of the worst day of his life. Jeff wants to walk again, but he approaches the challenge half- heartedly. He needs the love and support of his family, his friends and, especially Erin, even though he often treats them unkindly and even pushes them away. He doesn't want to be famous or inspirational, but it's out of his control. Something has got to give.
"Stronger" is a somewhat inspirational, but mostly bland bio-pic. With no disrespect to Jeff Bauman or any of the others directly or indirectly affected by the Boston Marathon Bombing, their individual stories are interesting, but aren't necessarily best served in the format of a feature film. Having said that, this one does about as good of a job as can be expected, given its limited focus. The screenplay by writer-actor John Pollono (who plays Tyler on TV's "This is Us") adapts the book of the film's title without being exploitive or flashy, telling the story almost entirely chronologically and only occasionally drifting into melodrama. Director David Gordon Green (mainly known for producing and directing TV series like "East Bound & Down" and "Vice Principals") does here what he did with 2014's "Manglehorn" and 2015's "Our Brand is Crisis", telling a story solidly, but making it less impactful than it probably should've been.
Green does, however, often get excellent performances out of his actors and this film is no exception. Gyllenhaal is as great as he was in similarly emotional roles like the desperate astronaut in "Life" (2017), the grieving father in "Nocturnal Animals" (2016) and the down-and-out boxer in "Southpaw" (2015), while Richardson and Maslany completely inhabit their roles. All three are award-worthy, especially Maslany in her most high-profile feature film role to date, following her personal triumph that is TV's "Orphan Black". In this film, she will be a revelation to many Movie Fans, while they may also notice and wonder how Gyllenhaal manages to continue giving exceptional performances in high-quality films every single year. This one may not be as exceptional as some man-versus-self films, but it's worth a look. "B"
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