It is an unintended consequence of Stronger, the biopic based on the memoirs of Boston Marathon survivor Jeff Bauman, that if the film is to be believed, Bauman post-Bombing is relatively the same as Bauman pre-Bombing. There are some changes to this working-class man, but for the most part, we have someone who ends up still a bit opaque, so much so that the main figure in Stronger comes across as weaker compared to at least two other people in his story who would have been more interesting to watch.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in many ways an adult child from Boston. Living with his lush of a mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), he is allowed to leave his job at Costco rather than clean up the mess he made due to his irresponsibility because he has to watch the Red Sox play at a bar.
As he explained it, the Sox have had a two game losing streak because he wasn't in his lucky seat drinking his lucky beer.
At the bar where he hangs with his friends and family, he spots Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his on-again, off-again girlfriend (they've broken up three times prior to this latest encounter if memory serves correct). Being the good-natured galoot that he is, he orders everyone at the bar to pony up to fund Erin's entry in the Boston Marathon. Jeff, who is always late to things, promises to be waiting for Erin at the finish line.
For once, he actually manages to show up, but this puts him close enough to the bomb that it ends up blowing his legs off. To save his life, what is left of his legs has to be amputated above the knee. The extended Bauman clan does nothing but argue among themselves and yell at everyone who comes up within fifty miles of them. They are especially wary of reporters to where they berate Kevin (Danny McCarthy), Jeff's boss who shows up. They accuse him of being a reporter, down to demanding he be searched for recording devices. When he informs them that he's Jeff's boss, they then start accusing him of wanting to fire Jeff and won't even accept the muffins he brought them. It's only when he starts presenting positive news, such as that Jeff's job is secure and that Costco will help with medical and financial counseling that they finally settle down.
Jeff finally wakes up and writes that he can identify one of the bombers. Six weeks after the bombing, he is able to leave the hospital. His extended family, however, seems curiously disengaged from providing even a modicum of sympathy or understanding of Jeff's grave situation. For his part, Jeff looks sad, but he won't share anything with his family, but he does share things with Erin.
An invitation to Jeff to wave the Boston Bruins' flag at a game to show 'Boston Strong' is extended, and the Baumans are thrilled. FREE TICKETS AND BOX SEATS TO A BRUINS GAME! Never mind that Jeff is slowly coming apart, that he has no comprehension of what 'Boston Strong' is and that even he appears at times more interested in drinking and barely masking his displeasure/discomfort at being paraded to others.
Jeff continues to live as he has before: drinking with his enabling family, not caring about anything except perhaps Erin. I say perhaps because while he wants Erin to move in with him, and by extension with his mother, he can't work up the courage to tell Mommy Dearest this. Erin and Patty soon start warring with each other over Jeff. Patty pushes for much publicity for Jeff, culminating with arranging an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Erin is dead-set against any more interviews, even if it with Oprah.
Jeff continues his life, and even manages to do some drinking and driving: his equally drunk friend pushing the pedals, all while showing contempt and irritation for anyone who comes up for a picture and tells him that 'they' won't win. Even Erin getting pregnant does not seem to get him back to reality; explaining he can't be a father the situation finally reaches a boiling point. Erin, who has endured Patty's snippy comments and Jeff's blankness, leaves Jeff in the car and gets her things from the apartment. Jeff has to crawl out to the apartment, where he has a long flashback to that traumatic day.
Eventually, after meeting Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who saved his life and hearing his own story of loss, Jeff starts understanding what 'Boston Strong' means and what that in turn means to others. They are invited to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, where Erin watches at home and sees the softening of her baby daddy. Afterwards, Jeff hears from many Sox fans who tell them what he means to them and how they've dealt with their own losses. Erin and Jeff reconcile.
Stronger makes some very curious choices. Chief among them is to give us so little time with Jeff, Erin or the Baumans before we get to the bombing. We get the basic sketches of our characters and then get thrust into our story. I figure that in many films that are meant to be 'inspirational', we would have spent some time with them beforehand, but Stronger opts not to. That in itself isn't the problem. The problem is that the Jeff we are shown isn't someone we care about.
He left someone else to clean up his mess so he could go to a bar and watch a Red Sox game. I know it's Boston, so it probably did happen. However, I find it hard to root for someone that irresponsible and selfish.
Even worse is how boorish the Baumans come across. Over and over they fit into the stereotype of working-class white Bostonians: virtual alcoholics who yell at and over each other and whose primary interest is in what they could get out of Jeff's tragedy. I was astonished that none of them ever apparently bothered to ask how Jeff actually was, and pretty appalled that they were more interested in that they got box seats to a Bruins game than in whether Jeff even wanted to be there in the first place.
The Baumans were so boorish that they made the Ward-Ecklund family in The Fighter look like the Vanderbilts by comparison. Are all Boston-area working-class white families this loud, obnoxious, self-centered and uncouth?
I truly cannot think of a fact-based film where almost almost everyone comes out looking so garish.
I genuinely do not know if director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono wanted to tell a story that would serve to inspire or to show the subjects in an almost perpetually bad light. I had flashbacks to another real-life figure who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; however, while we got to see the agony and recovery of Chris Kyle in American Sniper, in Stronger we got nothing. I think it is because for everything Bauman went through, he does not seem to have changed much if at all as a person.
As a side note, while we heard Kevin say Jeff's job was secure, we never saw him once going back to it. Too much time was spent showing him drunk, and while his drinking may have been due to his PTSD, given that he did that before the bombing it looks like it was not to deal with his trauma.
I am perplexed as to why none of the Baumans ever thought maybe Jeff should get more physical and mental therapy and less Oprah or The Today Show.
Gyllenhaal's efforts to Redmayne his way to an Oscar nomination flopped, probably because as good an actor as he is, I think more focus was spent on him getting that distinct Boston accent down than on showing us the core of the man. Gyllenhaal's primary expression was of sadness, and his Jeff Bauman was as I've said, rather opaque, unknown, far-off. For most of Stronger, his primary look was sad. I wondered when he left the hospital when would his big explosion scene come, and I was not disappointed: it was after the Bruins flag-waving, when the crowds started giving him flashbacks.
Technically, Jake Gyllenhaal did a strong job. However, just like Eddie Redmayne got the mechanics of playing Stephen Hawking right without ever showing me the heart of the man, Gyllenhall similarly got the mechanics right (accent, physicality) without ever showing me the heart of the man.
Much better were the women. Richardson is unrecognizable as the boozy Patty, whom you could almost smell the cigarettes coming from her. At times, it was difficult to know whether she was being self-serving or was merely misguided when it came to her son. Same for Maslany as Erin, the woman behind the man. Maslany especially showed Erin's conflict and evolution between loving the man and being angry at him.
Their struggles would have made for interesting viewing, though hopefully better than in one passive-aggressive scene. After having slept together, Erin goes to get something to drink wearing just a Bruins jersey. Patty goes into the kitchen. "Did you have sex with my son?", she asks. Walking away, Erin answers simply, "Yeah", which seemed as if they couldn't decide if it was meant to be dramatic or comedic.
Sanz in his one major scene as Carlos Arredondo, the man who saved Jeff's life, was powerful and moving, showing that his story was actually more interesting than the one Stronger presented.
Stronger is not a bad film. There were good moments, such as when his bandages were being dressed for the first time and we focus on Bauman and Erin's agonies with the physical pain in the background. However, for me, Stronger is more a lost opportunity, where Jeff Bauman's story of eventually finding he was 'Boston Strong' could have simply been better.