‘I’m going to walk with you again someday.’
At the start of the year, all the way back in February, we had Patriots Day. Like Stronger it was a film about the 2013 Boston Bombings. Unlike Stronger it focused on multiple people – the network of strangers who become irretrievably interlinked through surviving horrific circumstances. For me, it was a real tear jerker full of moments of tension and an overwhelming sense of horror at what occurred. When the events depicted actually occurred, they felt so far away and distant. The loses and the injuries remained numbers in a newspaper report, not real people whose lives had been altered forever. Patriots Day changed that, showing the atrocities with surprising tenderness and care. Stronger follows suit, instead focusing on one normal man who had been going about a seemingly normal day when everything changed in an instant.
The true story of Jeff Bauman is one that may initially seem all-too familiar Oscar bait (a character struggling with sudden life-altering circumstance) but is prevented being assigned that status thanks to two key features – the emphasis within the story on the mental trauma that Jeff endured and how masterly his on-screen counterpart, Jake Gyllenhaal, portrays his journey. The bombings and his resulting injuries – his legs are damaged so severely that both are amputated above the knee – take place within the first 30 minutes of the film.
The focus is on what happened the next, the real man behind the headlines who was iconised by his city as a symbol of strength and patriotism. Now viewed as a hero, when before he had just been an ordinary guy who worked on the deli counter at CostCo and was in an on-off-again relationship with girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), the film takes time to carefully examine the weight of expectation that was placed upon him and how that collided with his recovery. Whilst the nation viewed him as a hero, he instead viewed himself as a burden on his nearest and dearest. Suffering with the fragility of his mental state he had to try to come to terms with the unexpected and devastating path his life had taken – all whilst under the lens and exposure of national and international media.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is so heartfelt and superbly well-acted. Jeff’s story isn’t a typical hero’s journey: it’s far more raw, human and brutal than that. It’s not inspiring in the traditional sense – there’s too much grit in proceedings to allow for a conventional tear-jerker of a watching experience. That’s not to say the film isn’t moving, it’s just complicated. Jeff isn’t shown to be an all-American hero. Like us all, he is far from perfect. He’s an immature underachiever who seems pathologically unable to commit to anything.
At the start of the film, the reason why he’s even in the crowd at the Boston Marathon, is to try to win back Erin after letting her down – again. The accident doesn’t change that or his personality, he remains a figure who is just as complicated before and after. Mother Patty (an almost-unrecognisable Miranda Richardson) would explain many of those aforementioned behaviours. Gyllenhaal presents the range of emotions that Jeff experiences – from wide-eyed confusion, to knowing frustration to broken devastation. His eyes manage to tell so much, often betraying the falsities his mouth is spreading. There’s no hysteria, instead a secret inner-battle that highlights the multitude of complexities that arise from acts of senseless violence.
This isn’t just an inspirational movie. It’s a warts-and-all recovery movie that highlights the depths of the human spirit.