Stronger. Also wiser.

In Stronger, Jeff Bauman, played superbly by Jake Gyllenhaal, learns a really hard lesson. It isn’t all that easy to say what it is, but at the very core, it involves being willing to be who people need for you to be.

This is not, in other words, a movie about authenticity. At least, it is not about what we ordinarily call authenticity. [1] Quite the contrary, it is a movie about transcending that core of self and opening yourself as a means by which others’ needs can be met.

Jeff was near the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. His legs stronger 6were so badly damaged that they had to be amputated above the knee. He may very well have died from loss of blood had Carlos not intervened. But he didn’t die and a very frightened city declared him to be a hero—just for not dying.

That put Jeff in a really difficult place. First, he knew he wasn’t a hero. So accepting the status of hero [2] is hard for him. Second, he is a long way from understanding that the city needs him to be a hero—that his hero status is a sacrifice for him and a gift to the city. It takes him a long time to get there. And third, his family and his buddies all try to cash in on Jeff’s status as a hero, which adds an immediately repulsive patina to the whole thing and makes it seem to be one giant con job.  He is repelled by the con job; it takes him longer to see into the core of the matter.

That’s a huge challenge for Jeff and he doesn’t have much to go on in meeting it; he is not much of a person. The whole first part—the pre-marathon part— of the movie is given over to showing us that. Jeff is fiercely tribal and his tribe is not equipped to help him either. In fact, they are the first ones to exploit his new notoriety. [3]

stronger 4The help he gets, he gets from his sometime (but not current) girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany) who sees what he needs and is unwilling to withhold it from him. She is immediately heroic, as I see it, although that is not the way the movie understands her. And when all the crisis is over and Jeff has had a chance to discover in a whole new way just who he is, he gives himself to Erin.  That is very satisfying. He says something to her in this scene about “leaning on her.”  Yes he does.

The dimensions of Jeff’s difficulty are that a) he is called on to play a part for the benefit of someone else, b) it is a high profile and honorable part, and c) he is trapped by the conventions and expectations of his tribe. Three really big problems and he doesn’t deal with them very well. [4]

It will simplify this transition if we just look at two instances: one is very bad and gives us a sense of just how strained Jeff’s resources are. The other marks the occasion for a substantial step toward health (the Red Sox game) and also an occasion where the work Jeff has already done can be displayed.

The Bruins Game

They want Jeff to come onto the ice wearing a Blackhawk shirt. Erin, also wearing a Bruins shirt, pushes him onto the ice in his wheelchair. Everyone cheers, Jeff’s name is on the readerboard, along with his picture. He is required to wave a flag that reads “Boston Strong” back and forth while everyone cheers.

In the elevator on the way out, he attacks the only person who has dealt with his tragedy in his terms, rather than is her own (the mother) or his own (the father) or their own (his buddies) terms. Erin has put Jeff’s life in the center of her concern and she is the only one who has. That is why she is close to him and available for his anger and rejection.

stronger 8Everything is wrong with the Blackhawks event and it is portrayed so that we see that. Here, for instance, is a picture I didn’t see at the movie and now that I am looking at it, I can hardly believe I missed it.  Look at the cage the shadows of the hockey goal make on his face!  Then Jeff goes through a lot of development. He learns, for instance, that giving Boston the hero they need so badly is a form of self-transcendence.

The Red Sox Game

The setting is not all that different than the Bruins game, but Jeff if different by now. He is not yet ready to go beyond his own limits and offer himself to another person (Carlos is the exception so far), but it is something he can do for his city and the Red Sox are his team—he would really do anything he could for them.

stronger 7So he does. He plays the hero for them. He throws out the first pitch. [5] Carlos pushes his wheelchair out to the mound and that makes sense because Carlos is a hero in the same sense that Jeff is a hero. (As viewers, we understand Erin’s heroism at the Bruins game, but no one in the film understands it that way.) And then he tries to escape from the setting of the game, having done everything he thinks he can do. But here, his heroism catches up with him—not the phony imputed heroism that Boston lavished on him, but the real personal heroism that is based on his courage in responding to his personal disaster. A man named Larry needs to talk with him about the courage he has shown, and Jeff is willing to talk. We are surprised when Jeff asks the man his name; we are dumbfounded when Jeff reaches up and hugs him.

And after Larry, there is another; then another. The scene ends with Jeff still surrounded by people who want something he actually has and is willing to give. I was willing to call Jeff a hero when he understood that the hero business wasn’t really about him—it was a gift he gave to his city. But now Jeff understands that in his determination to work through his disabilities, to have a life again, he has become a hero of another kind entirely. And this heroism, based on his own understanding and his own work and his own pain, is his to give to anyone who needs it.

And he does.

[1] That may be a comment on how inadequate our notion of authenticity is. You could say that by the end of the movie, Jeff authentically embraces his status as a hero—a public property—and uses it to serve the needs of his fellow citizens.
[2] We see the other side of the mirror in the movie Hero, in which Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) rescues a woman from a plane only to see John Bubber (Andy Garcia) take the credit for it. Taking credit for being the hero he knows he is not doesn’t bother Bubber at all, but in Stronger, it bothers Jeff a lot.
[3] It’s hard to blame them, under the circumstances. They are no more prepared to deal with Jeff’s situation than Jeff is.
[4] I know I am skipping over the fact that he had his legs blown off and that he suffers, after the blast, from PTSD. Those are large challenges, but they are not the ones that caught my attention this time.
[5] Following Pedro Martinez’s advice, which I am sure we are to take in both the literal and the metaphorical senses of the term: “aim high.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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