Review: 'Stronger' Starring Jake Gyllenhaal And Tatiana Maslany

What does it mean to be a hero? It's a question that is often asked in Hollywood biopics, and answered in a way that is either unbelievable or superficial. To go any deeper into the question is to get at what isn't so pretty, and doesn't always make for the most uplifting of stories. The truth is that being a hero is the last thing on the mind of the one being put on a pedestal.

Stronger, the second awards season film in a year to tackle the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, could have easily been one of those thin, surface-level dramas, and some of the marketing kind of looks that way. Ironically, one would need to look beneath the surface to see that it has more to offer than easy manipulation and archetypes. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, whose name might not  be familiar but you surely know his photograph. The image of him, bloody and with his legs blown away by the explosion, was displayed in newspapers and televisions the world over. Bauman was a normal Boston guy; blue collar job at Costco, a large and boisterous family, and a girl in Erin (Tatiana Maslany) that he was trying to win over. It was his latest attempt to win her heart that brought him to the marathon that day, holding a big dorky sign cheering her on.

The explosion is seen sparingly, mostly through horrific flashbacks. In the immediate aftermath, we see how Jeff is able to put aside the immediacy of his situation by aiding in the manhunt. His accounts of the bombers was crucial in their apprehension; it also added to the "Boston Strong" mystique that would surround and haunt him ever since. Here was this regular, everyday Boston guy who just got his legs blown off and he's catching terrorists. But when all of that was over, Jeff had to face the hard reality of a life he would basically have to start over from scratch, with the eyes of an entire city watching him.

And that's the tough part, isn't it? While learning to rely on others for literally everything is hard enough, having to put on a brave front for a city that sees you as the epitome of Boston toughness is another. John Pollono's script, adapted from Bauman's memoir, doesn't shy away from every difficult moment. More importantly, it goes deeper into the moments we did see, like his public appearances at hockey and baseball games, to show what kind of impact they really had on him. Mostly, the film gets down to the relationship between Jeff and Erin. It's a difficult situation, for sure. Is she coming back into his life because she feels obligated? And now that she's in, what would it look like for her to leave? Jeff is presented as a fully-rounded guy with more than enough flaws to spare; flaws that kept Erin away from him in the first place. There are a lot of dark days ahead and the question, "Is this worth it?" lingers over their every moment together.  In some ways the film is as much about Erin as it is Jeff.

 It's another tremendous performance by Gyllenhaal, who seems to get better the more physical the role. While he didn't have to pack on the pounds or become rail thin to play Jeff, his body language and posture speaks volumes. You can see it in every scene where Jeff is uncomfortably in the limelight, surrounded by eager fans looking for autographs. Their comforting words do more to sooth themselves than they do Jeff, and Gyllenhaal makes you feel the weight of his anguish. And, to be fair, he turns up the wattage in those puppy dog eyes, too. We know Jeff will always be forgiven for whatever stupid thing he's done in the dark of despair because, darnit, whose going to refuse those eyes? Maslany, in her biggest post-Orphan Black role, has just as many complexities to deal with as Gyllenhaal does. Erin's feeling for Jeff pre and post-explosion give the film a well-roundedness that is sorely needed.

If there are problems with Stronger they stem from Jeff being so normal that his story comes across as unexceptional. That's not to say what he endures in the quest to walk again is minor; certainly it isn't the case. But the obstacle he faces is to not backslide into the unreliable "can't finish what he started" guy he was before the explosion. On the other hand, that Jeff is just a regular guy is what makes Stronger easy to relate to. Life has dealt him a bad hand, and while Jeff may want to wallow in self-pity like many of us would, it's when he helps others cope with their grief that he becomes truly heroic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5