The most indelible image from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was the photo of Jeff Bauman in a wheelchair. Having lost both legs, he sat clutching his left thigh as a trio of people whisked him toward an ambulance. His story — how he ended up at the race and how he fared afterward — comes to the screen in the raw and moving “Stronger,” based on Bauman’s memoir.
Jake Gyllenhaal, as always, disappears into the lead role, which is no small job. This isn’t a rosy tribute to a determined hero so much as the tale of an imperfect man who is forced to rise to the occasion. We first encounter Jeff at work, where he’s sweet-talking his way out of staying late.
So he’s determined — when he wants to be. That includes when it comes to winning back Erin (“Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany), who recently dumped him. When she shows up at Jeff’s favorite bar to raise money for her upcoming marathon, he turns on the charm, as he’s clearly done before. He even promises to meet her at the finish line of her race.
But Jeff is no chivalrous gentleman. Erin had a reason for dumping him, after all. He never showed up when he said he would.
The one time he finally does — at the marathon — his life is permanently changed. And so is hers.
This raises the first of the movie’s many prickly questions: What does Erin owe her ex-boyfriend? She decides to go all in on Jeff’s recuperation.
From there, “Stronger” hits a number of familiar beats charting the road to recovery. Jeff experiences post-traumatic stress, hits rock bottom and inevitably finds a reason to live. What sets the drama apart is how publicly Jeff deals with these tribulations.
“Stronger” isn’t always easy to watch; Jeff makes bad decisions and life gets messy. But it does feel like a realistic depiction of one man’s life.