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‘Stronger’ Reveals the Flawed Man Beneath a Heroic Boston Marathon Bombing Survivor

In David Gordon Green’s movie about one man’s ordeal in the aftermath of the 2013 attack, Jake Gyllenhaal shines as an amputee struggling with pain and newfound fame. But it’s still only a movie.

Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal kissing in ‘Stronger’ Lionsgate

On the morning of April 15, 2013, Jeff Bauman waited on Boylston Street, on the sidelines of the Boston Marathon, for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley, to cross the finish line. It was her first marathon. Bauman, the story goes, was not a great boyfriend: He had a history of not showing up. This time, he showed up. As he scanned the finish line for sight of Hurley, he saw a man in a heavy coat with sunglasses, a baseball cap, and—importantly—a backpack make his way toward the back of the crowd. It seemed odd at the time: dark, heavy clothing on a warm, sunny day. Later, Bauman would see the backpack sitting unattended on the sidewalk. It was only 5 feet away from him. The man was gone.

We know what happened: A bomb went off. The backpack. It was one of the two bombs that, placed 210 yards and detonated 12 seconds apart, would claim the lives of three people and injure several hundred others. Sixteen of those survivors lost limbs—most famously Bauman himself, who became the subject of a devastating Associated Press photograph that, for many worldwide, became the lasting image of the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s a picture of Bauman, his face confused and distraught, being led to safety in a wheelchair by an EMT, a woman in a pink cap, and most memorably, a man in a cowboy hat. In the most revealing version of the photo, Bauman’s legs are visibly gone below the knees. You can see the makeshift tourniquets someone tied over what remained, to staunch the bleeding. Jeff grabs one of his thighs in anguish.

Stronger, the new movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and adapted from Bauman’s 2014 book of the same name, tells the story of what happened next: the months of physical and psychological rehabilitation and, above all, the struggles of dealing with this newfound, unwanted notoriety. It’s a movie about what it feels like for someone’s worst day to force them to become an international symbol. The title recalls the rallying cry that united the city, indeed the country, in the aftermath: “Boston Strong.” The bombing was an act of terrorism, but Stronger is not a movie about terrorism, just as, for Bauman, that defining photograph isn’t about him losing his legs. It’s about the people who saved him. “It’s not a picture of the bombing,” he would later write of the infamous photograph, in an essay that could just as easily be about this new movie. “It doesn’t show the explosion, and it doesn’t show me being injured. It is a photograph of the rescue.”

Stronger, which was directed by David Gordon Green, does show the bombing, but only in brief, disorienting flashbacks that escalate in length and detail over the course of the movie. The brunt of what’s here is the ensuing struggle. Out of concern for Jeff, but also out of a sense of guilt, Erin, played by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, moves into the small, two-bedroom apartment Jeff shares with his mother to assist in his recovery. She’s a little bit of an outsider. Jeff’s family, at least as depicted in the movie, is raucous, funny, and supportive, but not always sure how to help—particularly his mother, Patty (played with a hard-won, endearing mix of humor and pain by Miranda Richardson). Patty is loving, but she plays into Jeff’s worst habits. She’s a drinker, and under the pressure of his notoriety and the pain of dealing with his double amputation, Jeff becomes one, too.

It is, in some ways, a difficult movie. We get long scenes dedicated to the recovery. We linger on the immediate pain and frustration of Jeff’s gauze getting removed for the first time, for example, and sit alongside him and his mother as the engineers designing Jeff’s prosthetic legs talk him through the making of the casts, the design of the prosthetics, and the new ways this will all shape his life. Stronger feels, in some ways, like a collective story: Here are all the people who helped. In one of the best scenes, we even meet Carlos Arredondo (played by Carlos Sanz), the so-called “Man in the Cowboy Hat.” As it turns out, he, too, has pain of his own to work through; for him, this event was bigger than either him or Jeff.

Green, a director noted for his slick hand with everyday realism, makes the movie a mix of David O. Russell familial antics, à la The Fighter, and an examination of the ins and outs of persona and national symbols, à la Clint Eastwood (specifically in movies like Flags of Our Fathers). In stark contrast with Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, which, released last year, is an overwhelming, technically precise procedural, Green’s style is deceptively plain. He gets impressionistic only when it suits the movie: His real talent is for subtly calling attention to the most salient, though perhaps easily overlooked details. Whenever Jeff is being carted around like a public figure, for example—as during a Bruins game, when he’s invited to greet the crowd and wave a flag—Green makes sure we can always sense Jeff’s legs. He subtly pulls our eyes toward what everyone in the crowd is undoubtedly noticing. He, in the same moment, makes us see how, even in the midst of being celebrated, Jeff feels overwhelmed and ridiculously small.

It helps to rest the weight of this project on a talent like Gyllenhaal, a perpetually strange actor who, among other things, knows how to undercut any sense of his strength or stature with an oddly delicate frailty. He’s got a rage in him that works wonders here as Jeff, who normally comes off as good-humored, finds himself needing to escape all the attention of his family, peers, and—worst of all—complete strangers. He locks himself in the bathroom and screams into a towel and lashes out at supporters while drunk. “I’m a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?” he says at one point, putting his finger on the central conflict of the movie. It’s an honorable performance, even if you have reason to be wary of actors who use real-life stories to prove how good they, the actor, are at “honorably” performing the pain of those real people. Gyllenhaal is obviously exerting himself here: You can see the strain in his body and face as he goes through the motions of learning to walk and cope with unwanted fame. A performance like this is always, in some ways, as much about the performer as the role. Gyllenhaal makes the most of it.

“At first, I was like, ‘That how Dave and Jake see me? Like a piece of work?’” the real Bauman recently told the Los Angeles Times, describing what it was like to see the movie for the first time. “It portrayed me partying and drinking and not showing up for therapy once a week when I should have been there three times a week. That’s real. I was lost going through this. He got me totally right. But was hard to face it and see that other people saw that.” It’s true that the movie doesn’t shy away from some of the more unflattering details, like a drunk-driving incident or a time when Erin comes home to find Jeff passed out in the bathtub, covered in his own shit. That’s part of the story, too: Erin’s frustrations undermine any easy takeaways about sticking around for the guy you love. This was an event that throws everyone’s life out of whack, not just Jeff’s, though, as a flawed nonhero, Jeff is of course the last person to realize this.

It is, altogether, a good movie. It’s also very much—realism be damned—just a movie. Somehow the three-act pivots of a basic script will never entirely prove satisfying as the scaffolding of a true story—particularly one as fraught, and as painful, as this. It risks undermining the film’s otherwise remarkable discoveries of the untold details of Jeff’s journey. You already kind of know the beats in advance; it doesn’t quite mesh with the movie’s argument that we should try to see Jeff as an individual with his own rich, complex experiences beneath all that heroic symbolism. You know the movie will engineer an upbeat ending; you know, or could plausibly predict, that it’d end with photos of the real-life Jeff, Erin, et. al., a common move for this kind of film.

But maybe real life is too complicated for movies, or at least for the movies that see it as their job to imitate life. In the movie, the Jeff and Erin story ends with them enduring happily, having overcome this tragic adversity. In real life, they’ve been divorced since February. What we see in the movie more or less supports this less chipper alternative ending. Stronger is unexpectedly complicated, in other words, because it’s about the difference between who Jeff is and what the city needed him to be, and because its own style and narrative choices are a direct result of that difference. It’s aware of that problem and it largely overcomes it. But only to the extent that a movie can.