Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) used to be a star. When he was in high school, he was a brilliant basketball player. He led his high school, Bishop Hayes, to multiple championships. Everyone expected Jack to have a bright figure but …. well, times change.
Decades later, Jack is a construction worker. He spends every night at the neighborhood bar. He wakes up every morning with a hangover. He starts his day by drinking and he ends it by passing out. He’s separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), and he can’t even enjoy a nice Thanksgiving dinner without everyone getting on his back about his drinking.
When he gets a phone call from his old high school, he’s shocked to learn that he’s being offered a job. The school’s basketball coach has had a heart attack. Father Devine (John Aylward) wants to know if Jack would be interested in filling in for the rest of the school year. Though at first reluctant and perhaps not wanting to be reminded of the future he once had, Jack eventually agrees.
The team, it turns out, is not particularly impressive. The school hasn’t gone to the playoffs since Jack graduated and basketball is such a low priority that the team only has 6 players. When Jack takes over, the team that has only won a single game. The team is undisciplined and so used to being losers that they can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a winner. You know what type of team I’m talking about because, even if you weren’t an athlete in school, you’ve probably seen a movie or two about underestimated high school teams that, under the leadership of a new coach, ended up shocking everyone by making it to the playoffs.
Working with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), Jack struggles to turn the team into winners. He’s a strict coach and, at first, the students resent him and his methods. When he kicks one of the best players off the team for showing up late to practice, everyone thinks that Jack’s gone too far. However, when the team actually starts to show signs of improvement, the team and the school rallies around their new head coach….
Of course, Jack still has his problems. He’s too quick to lose his temper. He curses a bit too often. Despite caring about the team, he’s still weary about getting too close to them. He’s emotionally damaged as the result of an abusive childhood and the death of his son. A winning season isn’t going to magically change that. However, Jack’s main problem is that he’s still an alcoholic. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to sugarcoat Jack’s addictions. Jack doesn’t magically become sober just because he’s found a purpose in life. Even when he briefly cuts back on his drinking, the temptation is still there. And when Jack finally does end up returning to his neighborhood bar and has too much to drink, the film is honest about the consequences of his actions.
The Way Back took me by surprise. It started out as a well-made but rather predictable underdog sports story but it takes a turn during the third act and reveals that it’s actually a character study of a well-meaning but immature man who cannot escape his demons. The film is honest about Jack’s problems and, to its credit, it doesn’t pretend like there are any easy solutions. It’s going to take more than just coaching his team to the playoffs for Jack to make peace with himself and his past. The film ends on a note that’s hopeful yet ambiguous. Jack has a long way to go and you’re not totally convinced that he’s ever going to truly complete his journey. But, at the same time, you’re happy that he finally got a chance to do something good with his life.
Ben Affleck was the perfect choice to play Jack and he gives the best performance that I’ve ever seen him give. Affleck has been open about his own struggles with alcoholism but beyond that, it’s easy to see Jack’s struggles as a metaphor for Affleck’s own up-and-down career. Like Jack, Affleck won a championship when Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture but it sometimes seems as if he’s struggled since then. His directorial follow-up, Live By Night, was a critical and commercial failure. His turn as Batman was appreciated by some but ridiculed by others. When he stepped down from directing The Batman, he was the subject of the same type of uncharitable gossip that follows Jack as he coaches his team. In the role of Jack, Ben Affleck gives a poignant, vulnerable, and honest performance. He’s willing to be unsympathetic. He doesn’t shy away from showing us that Jack, even at his best, can be a massive fuckup. And yet, he holds onto our sympathy even while Jack does some very stupid things. It’s Affleck’s performance that elevates The Way Back from being just another sports film to being something far more touching.
The Way Back may not be quite strong enough to be called a great film (though it’s certainly a good one) but Ben Affleck gives a great performance.