Stronger: What defines a man

Jeff Bauman is more than a photograph, more than just a symbol of strength during a harrowing moment in American history.

In a now iconic picture, Bauman is shown being carried to safety by a stranger in a cowboy hat following a terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

His journey before and after a homemade bomb took his legs and ripped his life apart has become the subject of “Stronger,” an emotional and gripping drama from director David Gordon Green.

Elegant and touching, “Stronger” doesn’t focus on the attack itself, but rather the physical and mental turmoil the events inflict upon Bauman, his family and estranged girlfriend Erin.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to the screenplay written by John Pollono that shows how Bauman seeks to define himself on his own terms and how something greater can come from the most difficult circumstances.

Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal does a masterful job giving Bauman immense complexity, balancing Jeff’s natural sense of humor and warmth with a bitter inner coldness that the bombing left inside him emotionally.

It’s a credit to Gyllenhaal’s performance, and especially to Bauman as a man, that everything about Jeff in “Stronger” comes from a place of love, that all his intentions are driven by a deep, rich heart.

No more evident is that love shown than in Gyllenhaal’s remarkable chemistry with Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany, who plays Bauman’s estranged girlfriend Erin Hurley.

The passion that Jeff and Erin have for each other radiates off the screen in a raw emotional way, where it truly feels that every word they speak to one another hammers home to the soul of their partner.

While his is the much larger part, Maslany undoubtably rises to the occasion and matches Gyllenhaal’s dedication and passion for authenticity. Their relationship is the single best part of “Stronger.”

“Stronger” occupies the same physical space and time as “Patriots Day,” Peter Berg’s methodical action/drama about the bombing, but approaches from a distinct, singular perspective.

“Patriots Day” is flashy and attempts to encapsulate the entire experience in a 120-minute film; “Stronger” is much more nuanced and smaller in its examination.

The bombing itself defines “Patriots Day” whereas Jeff Bauman’s inspirational journey is the driving force of “Stronger,” which is a better film on the whole.

Director Green makes the wise decision to stay out of his actors’ way for much of “Stronger,” allowing Gyllenhaal and Maslany ample room to breathe in the moment.

This gives the film a more grounded, realistic tone, fitting Sean Bobbitt’s tempered, unobtrusive cinematography.

The single moment this changes, however, comes via a devastatingly moving flashback sequence that drives viewers inside Bauman’s mental state in a profound way. The effect is brief, yet forceful and does a terrific job of jarring audiences awake and bringing them into the moment.

“Stronger” will ultimately be a fringe awards contender in most categories, though Gyllenhaal’s dynamic and powerful performance could lead to a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

The one drawback would be a reluctance on voters’ part to fill the category with biographical performances when Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” and Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Thomas Edison in “The Current War” will likely also garner consideration.

Backed by smaller independent studio Roadside Attractions, “Stronger” hasn’t gotten the attention it rightly deserves from audiences who frankly don’t know this film exists. It’s a movie that people simply need to see.

With terrific performances from Gyllenhaal and Maslany and a touching inspirational story, “Stronger” is an affecting drama worth grabbing some tissues and catching in theaters.

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