Strong; 120 min; Rated R
On April 15, 2013, two demented, twisted souls each left a pressure cooker packed with nails, ball bearings and gunpowder at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The explosions, detonating 12 seconds apart, killed three and injured hundreds, some critically. Sixteen people lost their limbs from the power of the blasts and the lethality of the shrapnel.
One of the severely wounded was Jeff Bauman, 26 years old, a resident of Chelmsford, Mass., and an employee of a local Costco. He was standing near the finish line holding up a sign of encouragement and congratulations for his ex-girlfriend (with whom he was hoping to redeem himself), Erin Hurley, who was nearing the end of the race.
Just before Erin saw Jeff, there were two explosions. Jeff was so critically injured — there is a harrowing image of him in a wheelchair being rushed to an ambulance — his shredded legs had to be amputated above the knee. In a heartbeat, his life was altered forever.
The film “Strong,” based on Jeff’s autobiography, tells his very personal story of what followed, beginning from the moment he wakes from an induced coma and is told, bluntly, by one of his cousins, who happened to be sitting with him, “Your legs are gone, bro.”
And so begins his life — portrayed with power and compassion by Jake Gylenhaal — as he never could have imagined it.
But what “Strong” does, to its credit, is not follow that familiar template of a resilient, determined individual who with grit does not yield. Rather, there are many aspects to this film that engage; two deeply resonate.
The first is that Jeff is a flawed human being, and there was little in his backstory that prepared him for this most tragic event. He suffers imperfectly. He becomes acquainted with not only his strength and will, but with his heartbreaking weakness. A thousand things that were part of his life and taken for granted suddenly become obstacles, from the stairs leading up to a second-floor apartment he shares with his mother (Miranda Richardson), to the bathroom, to simply reaching for the toilet paper. Every minute of his life becomes a small and large test, a spirit-draining crisis or a jaw-clenching detour.
Secondly, if this story is a character study of one young person’s confrontation with indescribable loss, with depression, with PTSD, with denial disguised as withdrawal and anger, it is also a study of all those lives that were also traumatized because they, in their own way, love Jeff. The explosion is like a jagged stone dropped into a still pond, and each member of his family, to include, most especially, Erin, played wonderfully by Tatiana Maslany, responds in a unique and compassionate and imperfect way. “Strong” is, as a result, a deeply human story.
And there is the response by the denizens of Boston, meaning all those who bore witness to the bombing, however removed, and reacted with rage and defiance and stood arms linked and repeated the words, “Boston strong!” It became the city’s mantra, and out of a deep need Jeff became a physical symbol of the city’s insistent that they would not yield. He became synonymous with this declaration of strength.
What torments Jeff is that he is ambivalent about his role in the collective statement. To his surprise, he becomes a lightning rod for the complex emotions of a people and as a result he finds himself sitting in his wheelchair, out on the ice, the stumps of his legs exposed, holding a Bruins flag. Or he is wheeled out to the Red Sox mound where he will throw out the first pitch.
It is only Erin who can feel his reluctance, sensing that the weight of the community is more than Jeff can bear, on shoulders that were not prepared for all that has followed the bombing.
And it is not simply the anonymous Boston community. It is also his family who voice their fears and concerns and love with the harshest of words buttressed by shots of alcohol and brutal arguments. They want to enfold him in their rough embrace, and Jeff wants to hide behind a scrim of wrenching pain, haunted by flashbacks.
“Strong” is honest and direct and at times all but unbearable to watch. It is, however, not a melodrama; instead it is raw and revealing as well as a wobbly love story that is tested and tested again, as is Jeff.