Heroism in the media age is an odd duck. Those who truly exhibit it on a daily basis – such as teachers, firefighters and soldiers – often go unrecognized while those who stumble upon it are worshipped.
Jeff Bauman, by his own admission, lies closer to the undeserving group. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time during the 2013 Boston Marathon. While cheering on his runner girlfriend, a bomb tore through his legs, necessitating their immediate amputation.
Despite the horrific injury, he was able to share information with the FBI that led to the discovery of one of the bombers. Thus the 28-year-old Costco chicken-roaster from Chelmsford gained his 15 minutes of fame, and then some.
"He never shows up for anything," his girlfriend, Erin, reflects following the tragedy. "And then he shows up."
What makes Bauman different from many other victims of terror is the path he took following his injury. After the shock wore off, he somewhat embraced his hero status, before rejecting it and ultimately channeling that rejection into a book, which serves as the basis for Stronger, the new film by director David Gordon Green (Our Brand Is Crisis, Pineapple Express).
Jake Gyllenhaal is superb as Bauman and deserves an Academy Award nomination for best actor. And after a couple of recent rejections, he'll likely get one, partially because of the film's subject, which seems tailor-made for Oscar.
Yes, the film seems slightly manipulative and predictable, particularly toward the end, but neither Gyllenhaal nor the script by John Pollono is guilty of many false notes. I challenge you to find another performance in cinema that makes you feel – both emotionally and physically – the loss of limbs. Gyllenhaal deserves praise for that, of course, but so do the cinematography and special effects, which completely convince you that the actor has suffered an unspeakable, graphic injury at the hands of terrorists who, in the film's most honest moment, are acknowledged to have won, at least on a purely physical level. Still, the movie posits some profound theories about the origins and importance of patriotism and community.
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is excellent as Erin, and it's the domestic moments between her and Jeff that create the most intensely realistic drama. But Miranda Richardson is even better. (Don't be surprised if she garners a supporting-actor nod for her portrayal of a clinging mother just a bit too enamored with her son's newfound fame.)
Though last year's Patriots Day, directed by Peter Berg and staring Mark Wahlberg, might have stolen a bit of this film's thunder, Stronger is a far different – and better – film, and that's mostly because of these interpersonal relationships, which create a moving and insightful portrait of both trauma and heroism.
"The whole world is watching you," Bauman's family tells him. "You're like a symbol to a lot of people. You're Boston Strong."
Though Bauman contributed to that strength, he struggled to find strength himself. But with the critical success of this film, he's undoubtedly finding it in spades now.