‘Some people like to look, some people don’t like to look at all,” a doctor tells Jeffrey Bauman at a breathless moment in the film Stronger. Bauman is just about to experience for the first time what it feels like to have the dressings removed from the stumps of his legs, both of which he lost in the Boston Marathon bombing. Bauman, captivatingly played by Jake Gyllenhaal in a richly detailed performance, doesn’t want to look, and neither does the director, who keeps the stumps out of focus in the background. Gyllenhaal’s face is enough to let us in on Bauman’s anguish.
When it comes to terrorism, the moviegoing audience has proven again and again that it doesn’t want to look. A movie about our planet being destroyed by a meteor, or tidal waves, or global warming, or aliens, will gross 60 gazillion dollars, but United 93 and Patriots Day, two of the best and most necessary films of this century, both flopped.
I expect Stronger to meet the same fate, but it’s one of the best films of 2017. We should use the occasion of this expertly crafted microcosm to look closely at one agonizing example of what Islamist fanaticism is doing to people all over the globe.
Bauman, who wrote the memoir upon which this film is based, is an ordinary guy from Chelmsford, Mass. He roasts chicken at a Costco, he lives with his abrasive mom (an unrecognizable Miranda Richardson), and he gets no love from his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) when he hints that they should get back together. Nevertheless, he helps raise money for her as she prepares to run in the 2013 Boston Marathon, and he’ll be cheering for her at the finish line when a pressure cooker explodes next to him.
The next thing he knows, his brother is standing over his hospital bed offering this tidbit of information: “There was an explosion and your f***ing legs — they’re gone, bro.”
Unlike Patriots Day, which managed to toggle between sketches of the victims, the terrorists, and the investigators while primarily recounting the manhunt that led to the death of one murderer and the capture of the other, Stronger simply drills down into Bauman’s ordeal. The sympathetic handling of his PTSD is reminiscent of the mood of American Sniper, as is the way Bauman resists, is indeed repelled by, his designation as a hero. Asked to appear at the opening of a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup game, he accepts the crowd’s cheers with an increasing sense of alienation, then falls into a rage. Spotted by a couple in a bar, he is asked to pose for a selfie as the pair congratulate him for “not letting them win.” How’s that? “From where I’m sitting, they at least got on the scoreboard,” he says laconically. According to the film, the second thing Bauman wrote when he first woke up unable to speak after surgery (the first was an inquiry into whether Erin was okay) was this: “Lt. Dan.” The reference is to the double amputee played by Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump.
Black comedy is present throughout: “Boston Strong” is to Bauman something of an empty slogan buzzing around the background, but the film’s feel for the spirit of Massachusetts is on a par with that of two other great films also set in my native state that were released in the last year — Patriots Day and Manchester by the Sea. Massachusetts means rude, sardonic people — flinty, profane, unsentimental, often deploying a sense of humor elsewhere dubbed “sick” that is actually an indicator of health.
Asked to appear at the opening of a Boston Bruins Stanley Cup game, he accepts the crowd’s cheers with an increasing sense of alienation, then falls into a rage.
The director, David Gordon Green, a cinematic polymath whose credits run from tight, serious indie dramas all the way to anarchic comedies like Pineapple Express, senses that the basic contours of the film lean toward cliché. Except for a few instances, he resists the pull. He and Gyllenhaal aren’t steering you to think, “Bauman suffered, but with Boston’s help, he pulled himself up again.” His journey is far more fraught.
Critical to his healing is the discovery that what has happened to him isn’t just about him. He’s become an unwitting chapter in a long history of jihadist depravity, and although (as Christopher Hitchens used to point out) it isn’t true that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, he nevertheless grows to accept that a kind of duty comes with being a symbol. Green brings the point home in a magnificent scene late in the movie when Bauman finally meets Carlos Arredondo, the man who came to his aid in a cowboy hat and appeared in an iconic photo by Charles Krupa of the Associated Press. Bauman isn’t the kind of guy to put his thoughts in filigreed language, but as he mends, he makes it clear to Erin that he’s a changed man when he says, in halting words: “I just wanna, like, live.”