Before images flash across the screen, the audio from the Today Show finds the hosts discussing how the Boston Marathon would be happening tomorrow. It's the type of overly perky empty chatter that fills the hours on morning TV, but in the context of Stronger, the cavalier tone feels ominous and chilling.
Stronger filters the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath through the lens of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Upon introduction, Jeff is a stereotypical "Masshole," the type who gathers with his rough-around-the-edges friends and family at local dives to scream at the Red Sox game on TV. When his on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) shows up to do some last-minute fundraising before running in the marathon, Jeff sees it as a chance to get back in her good graces. While he's never the reliable type who shows up, he promises to be waiting with a sign when she crosses the finish line. Unfortunately for him, he picked the wrong time and place to finally show up.
When Jeff wakes up in the hospital, his legs have been amputated above the knee. Cognizant enough to communicate, he provides information that leads authorities to the bombers. The press gets wind of the story and before he can even leave the hospital, Jeff becomes a local celebrity. Once he's discharged, there's a lot on his plate: readjusting to normal life, figuring out his relationship with Erin, and learning to walk again.
But Jeff isn't allowed to return to his old life. While his name is being held up as a sign of strength, he's struggling to even use the toilet without injuring himself. His family proves to be a constant, inescapable, chaotic din, and Erin serves as his only saving grace, the one person he can be honest, quiet and vulnerable around. He's confused and angry as to why he's a "hero" for getting his legs blown off. He didn't do anything. In these brief moments, Stronger flirts with an impactful, but tough to swallow, message.
The second act takes a harsh look at the symbol-making machine that exists in America. Jeff is stripped of any personal agency. He is the human embodiment of "Boston Strong"... whether he likes it or not. He becomes a dehumanized item that his city can literally wheel around to feel good about itself. Who cares if he might have PTSD in large crowds? Roll out the Boston Strong guy to fire up the Bruins fans. The bombers may have taken his legs, but the city takes his humanity.
And just when this ultra-compelling angle seems ready to make a very bold statement, everything softens. The plot slowly shifts to being a standard inspirational tale (crossed with a love story). Perhaps it was hoping for too much for John Pollono's script to fully tap into the dark side of tragedy exploitation (especially considering it's based on Bauman's memoir), but the end results feel a tad mundane.
Gyllenhaal fully commits to the flawed and wounded protagonist, managing to balance the frustrating aspects of Jeff's personality with Bostonian charm in a way that properly makes one waver on him the same way Erin does. While a few scenes of Jeff in pain and literally crawling for forgiveness seem to unabashedly beg for an Oscar nomination, there's just not enough weight in the part for Gyllenhaal's acting to rise to the level of winning awards (it doesn't come close to his turn in Nightcrawler).
While Gyllenhaal chews up scenery in the flashy role, Maslany delivers the film's best performance in her much more understated part. She's the glue that holds Stronger together. Erin is the calming rock in Jeff's hectic and harsh world. The devotion and muted agitation Maslany conveys while having to deal with not only Jeff's overbearing family and disrespectful mother, but also Jeff being a terrible boyfriend, keeps the audience invested. She's really the only rational and likable character for much of the film, and certainly the only one looking out for Jeff's best interests (Jeff included).
There's nothing inherently wrong with any part of Stronger. The film tells a compelling (if familiar) and emotionally moving feel-good story with the aid of some very fine acting. It's only the middle-act tease of something deeper that ends up making Stronger feel like a missed chance to not completely paint by numbers. ♦