The Way Back is a winning character drama carried on the back of the best performance of Ben Affleck’s career.
I often think of Ben Affleck as more of a performer than an actor. As the old Hollywood cliché goes, actors are fully committed to the in-the-moment truth of the material, while performers always remain aware of the audience. Affleck has been quite good in movies like The Town and Hollywoodland, but his work has always had an artifice of “Ben Affleck playing a character” as opposed to “a character brought to life by Ben Affleck.” It may seem like a small, ephemeral difference, but if I suspect if I point to Tom Cruise as the ultimate example of a film performer, my meaning should be a bit clearer.
I found The Way Back so effective in large part because this is one of the only times Affleck has ever really acted in a role. And he is nothing short of brilliant. Here, Affleck is cast as Jack Cunningham, once a high school basketball superstar who has been reduced to secreting away vodka swigs from his coffee mug at the construction site each morning. His alcoholism is not the performative insanity of something like Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas: rather, it is a simple fact of his life. He spends his days just drunk enough to quell his demons, and just sober enough to fit into society. Each night, he picks up the pace – it is clear Jack Cunningham needs to drink away the demons. Affleck litters the performance with tiny little details: before a family Thanksgiving dinner, he makes sure to hold his breath before hugging his mother, to hide the vodka odor just beneath the surface.
Affleck’s tabloid drama is impossible to purge from a viewer’s memory bank, and the actor seems to lean into the skid. You can see it in the way he opens a can of beer – he has the sort of automated physical response to a beer can you might see from a combat veteran lighting a cigarette in secret. It is clear that there is some blurring of the line between Jack Cunningham’s demons, and Ben Affleck’s own.
Director Gavin O’Connor has made some of the best sports movies of the last 20 years. He has on resume the greatest hockey movie ever made (Miracle) and the greatest mixed martial arts movie ever made (Warrior, admittedly there is little competition for this title). While Miracle is a very pure uplifting sports story of underdog triumph, Warrior takes the structure of an MMA tournament as avenue to investigate the lives of two brothers traumatized by an abusive father. The Way Back leans even further into character drama – it is as though O’Connor is simultaneously praising and undercutting the impart of sport.
Now, you are likely aware that this is also a basketball movie. Circumstances conspire to see Cunningham imported as the coach of his old Catholic high school’s basketball team. Having fallen into fallow times, an emergency opening sees a priest from the school reach out to recruit Cunningham to take over the team. As a lifelong sports competitor and fan, I think O’Connor has captured something very smart here. I’m 35 now and a father: there is something fundamentally silly about dedicating as many hours as I do to watching twentysomethings throw a ball through a hoop or hit a ball with a bat. Yet, nothing gets me quite as excited as the joy of Opening Day’s arrival. O’Connor brilliantly plays with the sort of longing nostalgia that sports always gives fans and participants, as he continues to undercut it with the brutal realities of “real” life. Team successes are met often with real life tragedies. Team drama is perpetually undercut by actual human necessities.
The basketball scenes themselves are effective enough, but the real star of the scenes remains Affleck’s coach. The film derives immense glee out of Cunningham’s dexterity, with four-letter-words deployed liberally at the expense of his players, opposing coaches and referees much to the chagrin of the team’s chaplain. The film would not feel nearly as true without the R rating – this is a man who would not have the words to express himself if the word “f*ck” were excised from his vocabulary. Affleck feels right as a curmudgeonly coach. When he demands that he no longer coaches a team that is being “outtoughed,” it is so easy to imagine a sixteen-year-old kid taking those words to heart.
It makes me sad that The Way Back was largely lost in the shuffle of the initial COVID shutdown. It was the last film I saw in theaters before New York City shutdown. I hope the new rebirth of the NBA can help bring the film the eyeballs it deserves. It is an excellent character drama that ably deploys the trappings of a sports movie to give the audience perspective on a very broken man. And it is the finest performance of Ben Affleck’s career.