Jeff Bauman was a 27-year-old chicken fryer at Costco, a man who hadn’t yet grown up, who lived at home with his mother and who lost his girlfriend because he was never there when she needed him.
Bauman had as much to do with the grand old traditions of the Boston Marathon as the Tsarnaev Brothers, whose pressure cooker bombs blew up the 2013 marathon finish line, killed three people and injured hundreds of others, including 16 people who lost limbs from the nails, BBs and glass the two Chechnyan brothers added to their bombs.
Yet Bauman, whose legs were blown off, an unlikely a hero as you’ll ever see, somehow became the symbol of Boston Strong, the incredible outpouring of pride and resistance that residents showed after terrorists tried to mess with their venerated Boston Marathon.
"Stronger" is the epic tale of how Bauman, played here by Jake Gyllenhaal, went from a reluctant hero –“Í’m a hero because I’m standing there and got my legs blown off?”—to a true symbol of how that day showed the resilient spirit of Boston and its marathon.
Bauman’s girlfriend, Erin Hurley (played by Tatiana Maslany) is the runner in this tale, a hospital administrator who ran to raise money for her Brigham Women’s Hospital. When she went to the bar where her old flame Bauman watched his Red Sox games, he grabbed her fundraising jar and had his bar friends fill it.
Still smitten, Bauman promised his former girlfriend that he would come watch her run. As always, Bauman was late the next day and got to the finish line with his home-made sign as Erin approached.
He got a last-minute look at a guy wearing sunglasses putting down a backpack and the next thing he heard was an explosion and a smell that reminded him of the Fourth of July. When he awoke in his hospital bed, he wrote a note -- "I saw the bomber" -- and helped identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Director David Gordon Green saved us from the carnage at first –he got to that later in horrifying flashbacks – but used news coverage of the two bombs that went off 12 seconds apart.
We see Bauman being wheeled away by a tall man in a cowboy hat, one of his shattered legs visible, a photograph that made Bauman the human face of that day. His girlfriend saw his image on a TV screen as she fled to a nearby bar.
Gyllenhaal is simply spectacular as Bauman, so believable as a cocky young jokester who has suddenly lost his legs. “Hey,” he said to his girlfriend as she sits on his hospital bed later, “you’re sitting on my legs.”
But Gyllenhaal’s best acting comes as a paraplegic forced to adapt to a frustrating new existence.
There was a protest by disabled groups after Gyllenhaal’s casting, with the argument that a disabled actor should have been considered. Fine, find a disabled actor with Gyllenhaal’s acting chops and cast him.
We watch as Gyllenhaal as Bauman at first can not look at the stumps where his legs were, watch him fall out of bed, watch him take a shower, even endure watching him using the toilet.
Beside him again is Erin, who has come back into his life and into the rowdy family of the Baumans, an F-bombing crowd led by his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) whose drinking only got worse as she coped with her son’s injuries.
The eventual clash between the two women in Bauman’s life came as Patty and her family kept pushing Jeff into the hero’s role, while Jeff and Erin resisted, finally saying no to an Oprah interview.
Taking pain pills including Fentanyl eventually got Bauman addicted, not helped by his drinking friends and his constant bar hopping. What could have been a tragedy when Bauman drunkenly decided to drive his friend’s car, with his friend on the floor working the gas and brakes, ended up in a laugher as the cop who pulled them over at gunpoint recognized Bauman and asked for his autograph.
Erin, now pregnant with the couple’s child, could finally take no more and moved out of the Bauman house.
Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), the man in the cowboy hat who saved Bauman’s life, saved him again when they met in a bar. Bauman has a beer in front of him in the early morning, as Carlos told him how he came to save him.
Carlos had lost two sons, one a marine shot by a sniper in the Gulf War, another who committed suicide because he couldn’t deal with the loss of his brother and his father’s poor handling of the death. Carlos had tried to end his life with a blowtorch but was saved by the Marines who came to tell him of his son’s death.
Carlos thanks Bauman for helping to save Bauman’s life, saying he wished he could have done the same for his son. Bauman turned his life around, went back to rehab and trained with his friends so he could throw out the first pitch for his beloved Red Sox. He threw a strike and the heartwarming scene was a true symbol of Boston Strong, a far cry from the frightened appearance by Bauman as he was honored at a Boston Bruins' game shortly after he was released from the hospital.
Erin came back, the couple had their first child, Nora Gail Bauman, and the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series.
4 stars (out of four)
“Stronger” directed by David Gordon Green, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley, Miranda Richardson as Patty Bauman, and Carlos Sanz as Carlos Arrendondo.