Stronger begins with Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) at his job as a chicken roaster at Costco. He begs off his shift early in order to occupy his lucky seat at the neighborhood pub to cheer on the Boston Red Sox. Wandering into the pub is his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), collecting donations so she can run the famed Boston Marathon. As he tries to worm his way into her good graces yet again, he promises to be at the finish line to cheer her on. For once, this chronic no-show actually shows up. When a guy in a black baseball hat and shades brushes by him, Jeff doesn’t think anything of it. Then the bomb goes off and he loses both his legs. Waking up from surgery, Jeff lets his family know that he saw the bomber and is instrumental in helping the FBI identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But that’s only the beginning of his journey.
Erin stands by Jeff as he recovers, especially being a buffer between Jeff and his raucous family. Jeff lives with his mom, Patty (Miranda Richardson), who is often so drunk that she can’t take him to his physical therapy appointments. The family really doesn’t know what to do with Jeff’s changed circumstances so they cover up with humor and volume, having the best of intentions, but not really helping that much. Meanwhile, Jeff hides his pain, both physical and mental, from them, only opening up to Erin.
As a survivor and the subject of a famous photo of him being assisted by the “man in the cowboy hat” on the day of the bombing, Jeff finds himself being labeled a hero. He continually tells anyone who uses the label that he’s not really a hero, he just survived.
What I really liked about Stronger is that it didn’t focus on the bombing itself but on one of the many stories to come out of it. The film didn’t try to make Jeff out to be a saint. He wasn’t. In the film, he and his family use the “f” word as an adjective to every other noun, they drank to excess, and Jeff was too unreliable to keep Erin in his life with any consistency. However, the anguish he went through after losing his legs was realistically captured in Gyllenhaal’s acting.
Stronger shines when it shows the struggle Jeff went through to first accept and then to embrace his status as a symbol of Boston Strong in the weeks and months following the bombing. He resists until, in a pivotal scene in the film, Jeff truly listens to the stories of loss and sufferings other people tell him beginning with Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man in the cowboy hat who had helped him into the ambulance.
One of the classic spiritual books I’ve read over the years is “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. In it he describes a simple-to-say-but-not-easy-to-do way of discovering and living out the will of God, namely just living the circumstances that life puts in front of you to the best of your ability, trusting in the goodness and providence of a loving God. We know that God doesn’t directly will evil but when circumstances come from horrible events, like the one in this film, it’s often difficult to find the working of God in them.
I don’t know if Jeff Bauman is a religious or even spiritual man but his story of taking the hand life dealt him and trying to respond to the best of his ability can, I think, be an inspiration to those of us who have faith in God to do our best to find the hand of God working in our lives, both when things are going good for us but especially when they are not.