Written by: Patrick Howard | March 5th, 2020
The Way Back (Gavin O’Connor, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
If one knows the public reports of Ben Affleck’s struggle with alcohol, admission to rehab, and the following moment of relapse, David O’Connor’s The Way Back can be viewed as the artistic representation of this stage of Affleck’s life. While this choice can be seen as brave or honorable, however you decide to see it, what is clear is that this aspect of The Way Back, another clichéd entry in the inspirational sports genre, is the only real priority for O’Connor (The Accountant), Affleck (Live by Night), and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (American Woman).
Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a once-proud example of American athleticism to his Catholic high school. 20 odd years later and Jack is swimming at the bottom of a bottle full of booze. He’s separated from his wife and can’t stop drinking on the job. It’s not a question of if he’ll emotionally and physically crash, but when. Just when Jack meets said crash around the corner, a priest from his high school asks him to accept the position of head coach of its less than reputable basketball team. This new part of Jack’s life turns out to be an experiment, unbeknownst to him, to answer the question: can a self-destructive alcoholic turn a basketball team’s losses into wins before he turns his life around for the better?
I’m familiar with the sports-movie tropes and iconography depicted in The Way Back, but it wasn’t the decision to use them in the story that bothered me. The film’s script includes: the top-tier player who doesn’t believe in his abilities; the loudmouth athlete who needs to learn how to properly love the game; and the parental figure who makes a personal discovery through the hearts and minds of his team. It’s all there, but O’Connor and company can’t decide which clichés they want and how to use them.
The artistic passion is ever-present in the scenes of Affleck’s Jack drinking his sorrows away or trying to reconnect with his ex-wife, played by Janina Gavankar (Blindspotting), and nowhere else. The writing for the boys of the basketball team is all setup, but these actors, including Melvin Gregg and Brandon Wilson, bring out as much light from their characterizations as possible, considering the meatless material they were given.
Ben Affleck pours out his soul in The Way Back. The question of the accuracy of his depiction of an alcoholic spiraling out of control won’t be found in this review. What I do know is no matter how extremely predictable the character arc of Jack Cunningham may be, the exposure of the crippling effects of alcoholism and the steps to overcome it is always an honorable thing to depict in any kind of story you tell.