In the wake of the horrendous massacre in Las Vegas, we have heard moving stories of heroism: a husband who was shot and killed while protecting his wife; a young woman whose vertebrae were broken helping others climb over a wall to safety; a young man stripping off his clothing to cover the faces of seven dead victims and helping a dozen others to safety; a stranger slinging a wounded woman over his shoulder as they ran for cover; a woman driving her pickup to the site in order to carry the wounded to hospitals; people lined up for five hours or more to give blood.
As the wounded begin their long road to recovery, they too will exhibit heroic efforts to regain their lives. Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote. We listen misty-eyed to their stories and praise them for their courage.
Coincidentally, two films opened this week with mass shootings as their theme. One of them, Super Dark Times, speculates on the events that create a mass murderer. The other, Stronger, is the subject of this review. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and provided a description of one of the bombers that helped the FBI track them down.
Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote.
We expect our recovering survivors to be stoic and heroic — especially when they appear in movies. But more often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain. Crisis doesn’t automatically build character; it reveals it. And Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is anything but heroic. A kitchen worker at Costco before the attack, he can’t even remember to take the chicken out of the oven before he takes out the trash. He is driven by an unwavering belief that his beloved Red Sox can only win if he watches the game from his favorite pub with a beer in his hand. He lives in a tiny fifth-story walkup with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), an alcoholic who is even more needy than Jeff. His girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) has broken up with him three times, primarily because he can’t get it together enough simply to show up when they have a date.
But on April 15, 2013, hoping to win Erin back, Jeff does show up — at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, bearing a homemade sign to cheer Erin on. And that’s how he loses his legs above the knee.
Erin shows up too, to shield him from his family and fans and to help him through his rehabilitation — and, yes, to assuage her guilt that she is the reason has lost his legs. But Jeff is a lousy patient, refusing to appear for the therapy sessions that are essential to building the core muscles he will need if he ever expects to use his prosthetic legs. Nevertheless, a sweet and painful romance develops between them.
More often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain.
Jeff’s lowlife family basks in the notoriety as reporters and promoters come calling. Oprah! The Bruins! The freakin’ Red Sox! His mother is positively drunk on booze and celebrity. Jeff’s relatives don’t understand the trauma he experiences in open spaces, where he relives the horror of that sunny afternoon, and they consider it a personal affront when he doesn’t share their enthusiasm for public appearances.
“You’re a symbol, kid!” one supporter proclaims.
“Of what?” Jeff asks.
“Of Boston strong!” is the reply.
But Jeff isn’t strong. He’s barely coping. We see his struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes — taking a shower, taking a crap, dragging himself across the floor like a baby, unable even to crawl.
Stronger is admittedly a genre film, and as such, it’s reasonably predictable. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Jeff does finally discover the strength to show up, although it comes through a plot development that is not at all predictable. What keeps this film from being maudlin, despite its subject matter and its predictability, is the topnotch acting, not only from Gyllenhaal (one of the best actors of this generation) but from the entire supporting cast. The beautiful Miranda Richardson is frumpy and low-class as Bauman’s self-centered alcoholic mother. Maslany is believably conflicted as the girlfriend from a better side of town who alternately feels pity, revulsion, and love for this tenderhearted young man. The nurses, paramedics, and doctors are so perfect in their calm, take-control speech patterns that I had to check the credits to see if they were medical professionals playing themselves.
We see Bauman's struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes.
Eventually Jeff agrees to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, and he asks for a bit of advice from the catcher. “Aim high,” is the response. Those two themes of the movie — show up, and aim high — are good advice for anyone.
Two days after the Las Vegas bombings, Jeff Bauman sent a message of encouragement and hope to the survivors. He wrote:
To the victims waking up in a hospital right now wondering how life will ever be the same. . . . I know your pain. The most important advice I can give is to remember that healing your mind is just as important as healing your physical, visible injuries. It took me too many years and dark moments to realize that and it is so, so important. You will walk again. You will laugh again. You will dance again. You will live again.
Bauman has learned how to show up, indeed.