Isn’t it always strange to not consider yourself a sports person but enjoy a satisfying sports movie from different genres and sports itself? That’s pretty much me since I never cared deeply about them unless it’s a fictional team that needs a win in their lives. I’m a sucker for the kind of sports film that will get me to cheer and root for the underdogs, which The Way Back looked like it was going to be from the first trailer alone.
What’s the Story: Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was once a talented former basketball star who deeps himself into an addiction with alcohol to ease the pain of his past, especially when he turned down a scholarship. When he’s given the opportunity to be the new coach of his alma mater, Bishop Hayes, with a team that hasn’t made the championship when he played, now might be the time to be able to find redemption within himself.
Around the time The Way Back was coming out earlier this month, I was anticipating for several reasons. One of them being a basketball movie, and the other being Affleck re-teaming with director Gavin O’ Connor. They’ve worked together in the past with The Accountant, which is an underrated thriller if you haven’t watched it yet. Also, when O’Connor is directing a sports drama, you know it’s going to be on the same level as Miracle or Warrior. Combining all of those elements was good enough for me to have high hopes for this latest drama, as this might be the first movie of 2020 I think is great.
Let’s talk about Affleck’s performance. Seeing this actor take on this role almost mirrors his real-life when you start to think about it. From a personal standpoint, Affleck has dealt with being an alcoholic and had to go to rehab, getting better for himself and his family. Without hesitation, he gives one of the best performances of his career since Gone Girl or Chasing Amy, and it truly shows. As Jack Cunningham, it’s clear that he sees major potential with his team and wants to get them to play their best by being a tough coach in the process. Not only that, but it’s also hard seeing him drinking a can of beer and getting drunk at the bar when we all he shouldn’t ease his pain with what happened with his past. As someone who thinks he’s been improving his acting skills and felt bad for him for leaving the Batman role, this is a role that needed him to be powerful and understand.
This could’ve been based on a true story, and I would’ve easily bought it. But I had to understand that his story written by Brad Ingelsby goes for that typical storyline and made it work for us to experience. The basketball scenes that O’Connor handled were engaging at every game that’s being shown, whether the team manages to win a game. Even for someone who doesn’t understand all the plays, it was interesting to see Jack encourage them to be strong and stay focus on winning the whole thing. There were a few moments where I went, “Yeah!”
It’s one of those times where it leaves you emotional, but not enough to make you tear up suddenly. This does a great job of not manipulating you with the drama going around the story. Before he started to get back on track in coaching, Jack doesn’t get to see much of his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) or his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar, Blindspotting), it tended to lean us more into about his past without making it heavy. But it’s a good time this wasn’t going for this gut-punch feeling, like I wasn’t hoping for this to be the sports version of Manchester By The Sea, with Affleck’s little brother Casey.
When you have a sports movie out, it’s easy to say it’s going to have the same formula we usually see, and we can see it as predictable. That isn’t a bad thing unless the story isn’t engaging anymore. They lose the first few games, and then they become a full force in winning afterward when they are a great team. Does this mean they’re going to win the big game? You just have to watch and see what happens. Besides that, I did want to know more about the other players, because we only got to know about Brandon Durrett (an excellent Brandon Wilson) and the connection we see from him and Jack. But even though it brings nothing new, all I can say that it didn’t end the way I thought it would be, and it took me by surprise.
There’s a good balance of focusing on basketball and the character study of Jack. Is this a film that can be relatable to anyone that has gone through being an alcoholic? It definitely can. Coming from someone who doesn’t anybody who’s has this problem currently, I can get the feeling it can turn certain people around. Sometimes cutting it off isn’t an easy thing to get over when you just know it will be a massive struggle, and it can lead to real consequences. But it’s all about moving forward and making the journey better with the lives we share with our families or, in this case, pushing that effort with a team.
By the way, if you want to watch Affleck’s interview with Diane Sawyer about becoming sober, the links are below if you’re interested:
In the end, The Way Back might’ve been formulaic for its taste, but it’s still a great film either way. The takeaway from watching this is that even in the toughest times of getting ourselves out of the deep, we have the purpose of getting back to who we were originally. It’s too early to talk Oscars, but if they were tomorrow, Affleck would be the front runner. Honestly, he shouldn’t be ignored for a Best Actor nomination because he was amazing. Warner Bros. Pictures had just released this On-Demand last week, and this is worth your time to check this out.
Overall Grade: A-