Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar
Everyone faces pain in their lives at different times with varying degrees of severity. It’s unfair but life must continue. Coping with the pain these catastrophic moments provide becomes the key to survival, which dictates where the protagonist of The Way Back finds himself. Grueling, real, and important, this film reckons with the decisions of one man and forces him to actually confront it.
Known as a local drunk and former high school basketball phenom, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) spends his time at the bar whenever he’s not at work. The reason for his pain remains hidden, but he gets the opportunity to step in as the head coach for his high school basketball team. Reluctant at first, he takes on the opportunity to lead a group of misfits and make them a winning team.
Seeing more than one sports movie will show a formula of the trajectory most of these stories utilize. It continually gets utilized because it works, seeing as sports movies try to be inspirational and lift people up. Achieving success in sports hinges so much on effort and grit, which makes almost any athlete’s story something people can latch onto and root for. While The Way Back utilizes some of the tropes, the confrontational aspect of this film towards its own protagonist allows it to stick out, as sports become secondary to his own personal development.
Hitting the bar every night to the point where the bartender knows exactly what you want might not indicate healthy living, but it’s where Jack finds himself coping with an incident not made clear early on. As he progresses through each day, more begins to come together to create the portrait of a man put before us like him being a former high school basketball legend who now lives an isolated life and blows up on people when he gets frustrated. The opportunity to coach this team arrives randomly and while he wants to refuse it at first, it presents him with the chance to do something meaningful in his life.
As the coach, many of the scenes he shares with the players indicate a separation of generations, as he’s confused by the behavior these boys have. Different priorities and attitudes clash with the way he was raised, which allows for some fun comedic moments. He coaches them hard because he wants to see them succeed despite the limited amount of talent and athletic ability they possess. His foul-mouthed approach rubs some of the administrators the wrong way, but it undoubtedly becomes integral to properly motivating his players to try their very hardest and not find satisfaction in losing. It requires a change in mindset, which Jack provides in an unconventional way, but the results truly speak for themselves.
This film has plenty of great sports moments where the tension rises and it presents those slow-motion game-winning plays where you’re not sure if the team will win or not. It certainly works in those moments, but the main story with the emotional weight comes with the development of Jack and how he attempts to fight off his alcoholism and the impact it has on the people around him. These moments provide the emotional weight the film’s theme carries, as it begins to become clear why his wife wants to divorce him and he picked up a drinking habit. The revelation makes it all clear, but the consequences for his actions truly sets this film apart. Too often do these “brilliant but troubled men” stories allow for there to be cheap reconciliation for their horrifying actions, but The Way Back makes Jack confront it and not be welcomed back with open arms. An important decision made by the screenwriter because some things cannot be taken back and rectified. Forgiveness can occur but that does not necessarily mean everything can go back to the way things were. It adds real stakes to the destructive actions Jack has done in recent times.
The main draw for The Way Back is Ben Affleck, who gets this leading man role and portrays a character that hits close to home for him. Affleck, himself, has struggled with substance abuse relating to alcohol and I’m sure this role became therapeutic for him. An intentional decision for him and it works, as he sells the scenes of desperation and moments where Jack just needs to get drunk to avoid the internal pain he feels. Affleck handles those heavy emotional moments along with the scenes where he needs to erupt. With this film, he teams up with Gavin O’Connor, who is no stranger to formulaic but potent sports movies. He created a tremendous mixed martial arts film in Warrior and proves once again how he can add such emotional fortitude to his stories in such an effective manner.
Actions have consequences no matter how much good comes before it, as aptly portrayed in The Way Back. It serves as a character study for Jack Cunningham and the analysis of monumental pain, but also a strong sports story about the underdogs coming together to win in ways they never have before. A combination of formula and emotion to elevate this film beyond average and into something potent.