Synopsis: Depressed, alcoholic man coaches high school basketball at his alma mater.
Is the sports movie an American phenomenon? Well, there is a 1911 silent flick out of Britain, Harry the Footballer wherein a soccer player is kidnapped on behalf of a rival team. His girlfriend helps him escape in time to kick the winning goal. High drama indeed. And fast forward to Academy Award Best Picture winner, Chariots of Fire (1981), produced by a British company which featured the story of two British runners at the 1924 Olympics, one a Scottish Christian and the other an English Jewish man who struggles against anti-Semitism. Of course, cinema covers our vast globe and beyond English language films, one can find a scattering of movies including a French film about racecar driving at Le Mans (24 heures d’amant) and a legendary cricket match in Hindi (Lagaan).
But the preponderance of evidence concludes that Hollywood dominates in the creation of sports films. Whether comedy or drama, the plot usually centers around an underdog team/athlete/coach who sets out to win against all odds. Difficulties to overcome can include racism (42, baseball great Jackie Robinson’s story), classism (Seabiscuit, a scrappy race horse pitted against a glamourous equine) and sexism (A League of Their Own, with Tom Hanks coaching women’s baseball team during WWII).
The Way Back walks in the footsteps of the crowd-pleasing Hoosiers, a 1986 film featuring Gene Hackman as an under-rated high school basketball coach in Indiana with an alcoholic assistant coach (Dennis Hopper). Maybe nobody else believes in the team, but coach does!
The Way Back is a star vehicle for Ben Affleck who stars as Jack Cunningham, a depressed, alcoholic construction worker who has lost faith in the world, and (eyeroll) himself. After the basketball coach at his Catholic school alma mater is stricken, the old priest principal asks him to take over. As one character remarks, Jack “was the best high school basketball player I’ve ever seen.” Please note that the story doesn’t unfold in a little burg, but in Los Angeles. So Jack must have been quite good, or maybe the guy just didn’t go to many games. In fact, I felt like Massachusetts in the winter and its formally grand assortment of parochial schools would’ve suited the mood of the movie better, but Ben Affleck’s kids (and various girlfriends probably) are in LA, so good on him for staying close to home.
The kids on the team are mostly POC, unlike the white dominated campus of Jack’s day. And they suck at winning. Among the players there’s a showboater who mouths off, a player who busies himself with the cheerleaders and a good shooter who’s lacking in confidence. Coach will have to turn them into a competitive team. And earn their respect, dammit!
Along with his assistant coach, Dan, a mild-mannered teacher, Jack insists they get serious about practice. Before long he isn’t finishing the day drinking beer while he showers, but drinking beer while he draws up plays at his gym office. One of Jack’s goals is to reach the playoffs, something the school hasn’t don’t since he was their star player. Of course.
It’s not easy to change up game scenes and make something new and exciting. But director and screenwriter Gavin O’Connor delivers excitement on the court. The players are getting really fired up as they start to win, but none more so than Jack. The team chaplain frowns as Jack swears up a storm on the sidelines. Just like Christ would do, I’m sure. I mean, haven’t you seen the statuettes of Sports Jesus motivating kids? He’s depicted helping little children perfect their games; running along beside them in his sandals after a soccer ball, helping them perfect their swing in baseball whilst clad in his simple robes, etc.,
But just like for movie star Ben Affleck, not everything is easy for Jack. In interesting parallels: Jack is estranged from his wife (Ben and Jennifer Garner couldn’t make it work), he gets smashed at his local bar where a kindly old man helps him back home like a fairy godfather (traces of one of Ben’s more recent relapses and Jen coming to the rescue and whisking him off to rehab) and his workday looks rote and uninspired (like Ben as Batman). When Ben is having a moment of reflection or a bitter outburst the camera gets really close, first nearly knocking into his squared-off jaw and then pulling in tight to his watery eyes.
And you might think that at times Jack acts like a selfish loser who has himself and not alcohol to blame. But who are you to judge?! Because we may learn that Jack has a tragedy in his personal history. Movie Loon got right onto the internet to do some research… It turns out that there is a link between alcoholism and depression — nearly a third of those with major depression also have alcohol problems. This calls for more closeups of Ben. I kid, but Ben is actually excellent as a man caught in a cycle of recovery and relapse. In fact, most experts in rehabilitation say that relapse is to be expected. The good news is that for people who can stay sober for five years, their relapse rate is less than 15%.
Just before filming was set to begin on The Way Back, Ben relapsed. While he was in treatment, Jenn Garner implored the director to keep going forward with Ben attached as lead. I guess it was motivating him to get clean? I don’t know, but it seems that playing an alcoholic who has to deal with all the family members he feels he’s let down would be triggering. But, fortunately, all the pix I have seen lately of Ben are at the beach with his new love, actress Ana de Armas and he looks sober. In fact, they both look happy together in spite of having to live with his choice to have his back inked with a giant dragon tattoo.
Luckily, Ben’s character seems to have a good support system. His sister is always casting him sympathetic looks and the assistant coach helpfully informs him that he should not be drinking on the job. In fact, every person he meets seems to have his well-being as their fundamental concern. And why shouldn’t they?! He won an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting and Argo! And upstanding Matt Damon is his best friend. Don’t forget that Jenn still thinks he has a lot to offer! Oops, wait, we were talking about blue collar high school b-ball coach, Jack Cunningham.
All in all, The Way Back is a decent entry into the pantheon of Sports movies. And Ben Affleck is outstanding as a man trying to find his way back.