The Way Back was directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic former basketball player who is recruited to coach his alma mater’s struggling team. Cunningham battles his alcohol addiction, and the grief that fuels it, while helping the team become championship contenders.
To state the obvious, this story has been done before a lot, within the sports genre and outside of it. But Gavin O Connor (Miracle, Warrior) is a pro at making sports dramas that really invest you in the stakes and the characters. The Way Back is no exception, and it turns out to be a much better film than it should be thanks to a great performance by Ben Affleck and a final act that wisely doesn’t undo or soften the consequences Cunningham faces for his mistakes. The film also features a winning supporting turn by Al Madrigal in a fairly serious role as Assistant Coach Dan. His character provides a bit of comic relief, but also confronts Cunningham on bad calls on and off the court. His presence also keeps the script from turning Cunningham into a white savior during the basketball focused midsection. The two coaches work together, and while Cunningham certainly brings a lot of knowledge and skill to his role, the script gives Dan plenty of influence over the team’s successes and failures. It also establishes that Dan could probably lead the team to greatness on his own, but doesn’t have the time due to commitments to an ailing family member.
The first and last third of the film deal mostly with Cunningham’s addiction, and most of these scenes are effective. The middle section, which contains the most basketball, includes some thrilling sports action. I was invested in every game depicted, and the drama on the court was easy to follow. The problem is, there’s a long section where the plot seems to drop the whole alcoholic aspect of Cunningham. We go a long time without seeing Cunningham drink, which I guess we could take as meaning his focus on coaching has led him to cut back or stop drinking altogether. But the film never really establishes that to be the case, and considering how heavily he drinks early on in the film (a brilliantly cut scene involving a refrigerator might rival a key scene in Flight), he would have to go through some sort of withdrawal or really struggle with not drinking; a struggle we don’t see at all until a plot development early in the final act has him spiral worse than ever before. There’s an odd structure to Cunningham’s arc in the middle that doesn’t quite work. I get that his anger over a not so distant tragedy contributes to his alcoholism, and the mid-section does explore his anger (expressed often by his use of profanity in inappropriate settings) a lot, but I just felt like a part of his character was dropped for a good thirty to forty minutes without explanation.
Overall though, I was invested in The Way Back and impressed by Affleck’s work. Casey Affleck won an Oscar for doing far less in Manchester by the Sea. That was of course a much better film than The Way Back, but I never understood why everyone thought Casey Affleck’s work in it was the best lead performance of that year. It’s certainly too early in 2020 to say that Ben’s performance here is the best or even one of the five best of the year, but it is definitely a career best for him.
I did not have many expectations going into this film. I will say, I really enjoyed this experience. Don’t get me wrong, narrative wise it was nothing groundbreaking. It very much followed the traditional sports story structure. There were a few touches though that made it feel fresh at times. There was only one point that I can recall that clichés were too much. Ben Affleck made this movie what it was. His performance was outstanding, and that means a lot coming from me as I am still firmly on Team Jen (Garner or Lopez, you choose).
Let’s just start at the beginning. Before the title sequence, there are a couple scenes in which we are introduced to Jack Cunningham (Affleck). We learn everything we need to know about his character without the use of dialogue. It is just the first scene of many throughout where silence is used well to let us get to know a character. This method plays into a larger choice made to not reveal anything before the audience needs to know it. We are learning about every character until the last shot (pun intended). And honestly, we are learning about the characters as they learn about themselves. This is very much a film about growth and self-discovery.
I also really appreciated the direction by Gavin O’Connor. Sports films are really hit or miss for me and usually it depends on the director. The games that were shown were easy to follow and the use of montage sequences were necessary and not overused. There is one montage scene when Jack is trying to decide if he should coach the team. He is at home and drinking more and more beer while practicing how he is going to turn down the gig. Because of how it is shot, it shows the audience that this is a normal thing for this character. It helps to establish how much of a problem this character has.
In general, I would say the alcoholism aspect of the narrative is handled well. However, as Nate mentioned, during the second act, while Jack is focused on the team, he is not shown drinking. There is one small scene where it is supposed to establish that he is making the decision to abstain. But, it is not enough. They do not show him struggle with this choice, nor do they show that he struggles at staying sober. I am not an alcoholic and I am not going to pretend that I totally understand the disease. However, I do know that it is extremely difficult for someone with a problem as severe as his to just quit cold turkey and go on in life like there was no problem.
I think the biggest flaw with this film is that there are a few too many subplots. It is just trying to do too much. One of these subplots was also just a huge sports film cliché that made me roll my eyes. One student has a father who is not supportive of his basketball career and does not go to any of his games. Jack goes to talk to him and try to convince him to show up to the playoff game. In the grand scheme of the plot it was not necessary. While we get to know the players, this is very much a movie about Jack and not the team.
The performances really do make this film what it is. Michaela Watkins, Al Madrigal, and Janina Gavankar provide supporting turns that really round this film out. The narrative may have been conventional but it was an interesting character study to say the least. While I can’t say I am going to seek this one out again, I really did enjoy the viewing experience.