The most indelible image from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was the photo of Jeff Bauman in a wheelchair. Having lost both legs, he sat clutching his left thigh as a trio of people whisked him toward an ambulance. His story - how he ended up at the race and how he fared afterward - comes to the screen in the raw and moving "Stronger," based on Bauman's memoir.
Jake Gyllenhaal disappears into the lead role, which is no small job. This isn't a rosy tribute to a determined hero so much as the tale of an imperfect man forced to rise to the occasion.
We first encounter Jeff at work, where he's sweet-talking his way out of staying late. He roasts chicken at Costco and, though he's created a huge mess in the oven, he insists he has to leave to help the Red Sox win. If he isn't in his lucky seat at the local bar, who knows what might happen?
So he's determined - when he wants to be. That includes when it comes to winning back Erin ("Orphan Black's" Tatiana Maslany), who recently dumped him. When she shows up at Jeff's favorite bar to raise money for her upcoming marathon, he turns on the charm. He even promises to meet her at the finish line.
But Jeff is a mess; already tipsy, his shirt stained, his hard-sell tactics overbearing.
The one time he does - at the marathon - his life is permanently changed. And so is hers.
This raises the first of many prickly questions: What does Erin owe her ex-boyfriend? She appears at the hospital after Jeff has had both legs amputated above the knee. His family is there, too, screaming at one another. The family, particularly Jeff's mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), come across as cartoonishly rough around the edges.
"Stronger" hits a number of familiar beats charting the road to recovery. Jeff experiences post-traumatic stress, hits rock bottom and inevitably finds a reason to live. What sets the drama apart is how publicly Jeff deals with these tribulations. His story was "Boston Strong," or so the city's residents thought. They needed him to thrive so they could say the terrorists didn't win. And yet, Jeff never asked to be anyone's hero. He may not even be capable of being one.
Director David Gordon Green, best known for comedies ("Pineapple Express," "Your Highness"), does an excellent job of putting the audience into Jeff's conflicted state of mind.
"Stronger" isn't always easy to watch; Jeff makes bad decisions, and life gets messy. But it does feel like a realistic depiction of one man's life. He might not have been the idealized champion the world tried to make him, but in the end, that makes his story more compelling.