'The Way Back' Has Too Much Ben Affleck, Not Enough Sports Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins
Published Mar 06, 2020We like sports movies because they string a compelling narrative of triumph punctuated with melodramatic music through an already viscerally exciting spectacle. The Way Back sells itself as such a sports drama, but it isn't exciting, because it's really just a Ben Affleck drama — and I learned this 90 minutes in, when the sporting ended but the Affleck continued.
It's directed by Gavin O'Connor, who helmed Pride and Glory, Warrior and The Accountant — films notable for having blue-gray posters. Written by Brad Ingelsby, it stars Affleck as Jack Cunningham, a heavily tattooed labourer who lives in a very shoddy home, showers with a sliver of Irish Spring and has an endless supply of silver-red beer cans that look tiny in his big hands. Jack was a basketball star in high school, but he walked away from the game to spite his dad. He married a beautiful woman who is much better than him and who doesn't get very much screen time. Jack's nine-year-old son died a year ago from cancer, and to cope with this, he has isolated himself within a beer-soaked haze. His old high school gives him the opportunity to coach his old basketball team, which hasn't won a game since he left.
As the title suggests, the film tests whether Cunningham can survive the tragedies of his life through shepherding the team to victory. But the film gives up this athletic mission two-thirds of the way in, and we are left with just Jack. Affleck is believable, mostly because he's playing himself, heartbroken after his IRL divorce. What's very unbelievable is the idea of him playing basketball, which he doesn't do at all in the film, other than walk around with the ball in his hands. When he is supposed to be playing, it's very obviously a stand-in.
Although Jack tells his team that he would coach them over any other, the film spends little time with them, other than Brandon (Brandon Wilson), whom he makes team captain because Jack sees himself and his son in him. The film doesn't depict convincing tender moments between Jack and the team; The Way Back is just about Affleck.
The Way Back both sidelines the couple of women in Cunningham's life — his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and patient ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) — and indulges in some gender-based jock talk that's remarkably tone-deaf in 2020.
This movie is not good, and it's unfortunate that the camera lingers for so long on Affleck's heavy and sedate sadness, and for not long enough on what might have redeemed the film: the boys playing the game, Angela, who is just as broken and sad as Jack is, or Beth, who is just trying her best.