It has been quite some time since the industry has put out a really good sports film as many in recent years have been mediocre at best (the Creed films, Ford v Ferrari, Logan Lucky, and I, Tonya are exceptions to this). So, when I saw the trailers for The Way Back, I was cautiously optimistic. On one hand, it looked like it would be a powerhouse performance from Ben Affleck as the story seemed to closely resemble his own struggles, but on the other hand, it also looked like it would be one of those sappy and predictable sport movies that spoon feeds the audience. Luckily, the former was delivered with an incredible story and script to back it up.
The Way Back throws us into the life of Jack Cunningham, played by Ben Affleck, who was a high school basketball star that gave up the game in spite of his father. Through a series of gut-wrenching events, Jack is now separated from his wife and drinks away cases of beer everyday to numb the pain of an event that is made clear through the events of the story. Despite giving up the game and picking up the bottle, Jack is offered and accepts a coaching position at his alma mater, who is massively struggling. This basketball team needs Jack just as much as he needs them, and together, they can start correcting their paths, owning their mistakes, and strive for redemption.
As alluded to, this is Ben Affleck’s movie. While the rest of the cast does their job well, Affleck commands every scene he is in, using every moment he gets to fully embrace the character and work through the pain the script requires of him. For those who are unaware of Affleck’s struggles, I highly recommend checking out this interview by Brooks Barnes for The New York Times that was published a few weeks ago (NYT article). Long story short, Ben Affleck suffered from a messy split from his former wife, Jennifer Garner, and has struggled with heavy alcoholism that he is currently recovering from. Within the interview, Affleck said that making this movie was very therapeutic for him, and it shows. The emotion that Affleck digs up is raw and very much his real pain, and while it may seem insensitive, the movie greatly benefits from the depths that Affleck was willing to retread.
Normally in these types of sport stories, we are normally given a strong lead performance with a weaker script that doesn’t support it (unpopular opinion, but about every other Kevin Costner sport film). Luckily, The Way Back has a fantastic script that gives every actor a chance to shine and delivers great twists and turns. One big thing that really stands out about The Way Back is its willingness to not have Jack Cunningham’s coaching be an immediate cure for his alcoholism and suffering. This film does a really great job at being just a snapshot into the life of its main character—it makes no attempts at wrapping everything up in a clean bow or show how to cure anguish in a month’s time (major pet peeve of mine in a lot of redemption and underdog films).
The Way Back is an emotional journey that lives up to the trailers and is a great redemption story. This is Ben Affleck’s love letter to himself and his fight to beat his demons. If you are looking for emotional sports flick that is so much more than that, this is the film for you.
The Way Back is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references.