"Stronger" is the title of Jeff Bauman's bestselling memoir about his experience as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, and also of David Gordon Green's fine new film adaptation. It is also a knowing riff on "Boston Strong," a call for local unity and an assertion of hometown pride that rose from the ashes of that 2013 tragedy to become a T-shirt slogan, a hashtag and a worldwide rallying cry.
But even the most inspiring mantra can falter under the weight of tragedy, especially if it is invoked too often in an unexamined, uncritical spirit. It's a difficult truth that this movie's shrewd, sensitive retelling, centered on Jake Gyllenhaal's fully inhabited performance in the lead role, comprehends with a quiet fury that few uplift-chasing dramas manage to muster.
As we follow Jeff through the horror of losing his legs in the explosion and then spending months learning to walk again with prosthetic limbs, the chorus of "Boston Strong" seems to pelt him from all sides, from family members, friends and complete strangers alike. Words that are meant to soothe and encourage soon take on an empty, platitudinous air, not so much honoring as trivializing his suffering — a suffering that those noisily cheering him on can scarcely begin to understand.
One of the best things about "Stronger," which Green directed from a script by John Pollono, is that it doesn't shy away from, much less attempt to stifle, the anger, despair and terrible loneliness that Bauman experienced during his long, painful rehabilitation. The movie is a straightforward, even familiar, tale of survival and recovery, but its grave respect for the unique extremity of its protagonist's ordeal cancels out any impulse toward exploitation. It doesn't make the mistake of assuming that your tears are its natural entitlement, which is precisely why you might find yourself shedding a few before it's over.
Mine admittedly started flowing early, not long after Jeff, a Costco employee in his 20s, tries to win back his on-and-off girlfriend, Erin Hurley (the superb Tatiana Maslany), by greeting her at the finish line of the marathon she's running. Green dramatizes what happens next with remarkable discretion. The two explosions that ring out are staged from a careful distance; an up-close view of the carnage will be withheld for maximum impact later, as well as a soon-to-be-famous photograph of Jeff being wheeled from the scene by a good Samaritan in a cowboy hat. When we see Jeff again, unconscious in his hospital bed, he has already undergone an above-the-knee double amputation.
The most startling image in a movie otherwise photographed with gray-toned, no-frills intimacy (by the versatile cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) keeps Jeff's lower body in the background as the bandages come slowly and painfully off. His and Erin's faces remain firmly in the foreground, and what passes between them is a wordless, wrenching affirmation of love, devastation and need. In one shot, the movie has laid out its purpose in stark visual terms: This will be an exploration of grievous physical trauma, yes, but it will be a love story and a drama of psychological endurance.
There is an awful lot that Jeff will have to endure, from the indignity of needing help to use the bathroom to the agony and exhaustion of physical therapy. There are endless people hoping to get their picture taken with him and applauding him for not "letting the terrorists win" — a truthful assessment insofar as Jeff's eyewitness testimony helps the authorities capture one of the suspected bombers, but also a statement that rings increasingly hollow the more he hears it.
There is a photo op at a Bruins game where Jeff is wheeled out onto the ice, trying not to grimace as he waves a "Boston Strong" flag — a scene that distills the pain and confusion of last year's PTSD drama "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" into one haunting moment. And then there is the challenge of dealing with family members, who rail against one another with the thick accents and ill tempers that the movies usually depict as every Bostonian's default setting, and who seem unable to process Jeff's ordeal with anything other than expressions of rage or relief.
Though we don't spend much time getting to know Jeff before the bombing, we see enough to suggest that he might have reacted in much the same fashion. An early scene revels in his gregarious, outsize personality, which feeds equally on beer and the deep bonds of community; he's never happier than when he's watching a Red Sox game at a bar with his family and friends. One of "Stronger's" most perceptive insights is that this kind of boozy tribalism has its comforts and supports, but also its limitations. When Jeff loses his legs, he also loses his sense of belonging and thus his sense of purpose.
Trying to mitigate that situation is his well-meaning mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson in a skillful, not-always-sympathetic performance), who does what she can to maximize Jeff's local-celebrity status — not because she's desperate for fame, but because as the movie presents it, it's one of the few ways she can wrest any clear sense of meaning from the tragedy. The small apartment that mother and son share becomes even more crowded when Erin moves in as Jeff's full-time caretaker, and Maslany beautifully suggests the tangled feelings of guilt and obligation that underscore her character's newfound devotion.
Gyllenhaal's performances in films such as "Nightcrawler" and "Southpaw" have scarcely lacked for physical intensity; at times his raw commitment has seemed strenuous to a distracting degree. In "Stronger," his on-screen disability is achieved with a seamless mix of prosthetics and visual effects, and his acting strives for, and achieves, a similar invisibility. It's not that you entirely forget who you're watching, but that you believe him completely as an unremarkable guy caught up in life-altering circumstances. It's one of the actor's most restrained, affecting performances.
Green, who began his career as the indie darling of "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls" but has since gravitated toward the mainstream with studio projects such as "Our Brand Is Crisis," here achieves an entirely accessible fusion of both sensibilities. At every step he seems aware of the potential for hypocrisy, the possibility that his movie, in rebuking the natural tendency to seize upon Bauman's story for one's own purposes, might in turn be accused of doing the same.
But "Stronger" is itself made of stronger stuff than that, and you can feel the integrity in its modesty of scale, its refusal of cheap catharsis or narrative fuss, and its awareness that even its hard-won conclusion is just one early milestone for a man with a long way to go. In the end, the movie doesn't misuse Bauman's story, or abuse his natural Everyman appeal, by suggesting that either his tragedy or his triumph belongs to anyone but himself.
Rating: R, for language throughout, some graphic injury images and brief sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In general release