Review: ‘The Way Back’ Finds Ben Affleck at the Top of His Game
By Daniel Rester
Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to inspirational sports dramas. While he’s explored some other genres in his career, he is perhaps best known for his hockey film Miracle (2004) and his mixed martial arts film Warrior (2011). O’Connor also teamed with Ben Affleck on the action drama The Accountant (2016). The two have come together again for The Way Back, with O’Connor checking basketball off of his list this time around.
Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a former star of a high-school basketball team who turned down a scholarship to the University of Kansas. Now he’s an adult and drinks most of his days away as he struggles with alcoholism. His life begins to change as he takes on a coaching job at his alma mater. Can the team make it to the top and can Cunningham face his past demons?
Some of the ingredients for The Way Back are pure sports movie formula. The down-on-his-luck coach who can learn from his team as his team learns from him? Check. A team that sucks early on but eventually makes it to the finals? Check. Slow motion shots as the game clock counts down? Check. A player who is kicked off the team only to come back later for redemption? Check.
While those expected beats are there, O’Connor treats The Way Back as an alcoholism drama first and an underdog basketball story second. This is where The Way Back succeeds. It doesn’t solve its lead character’s entire life with PG-rated optimism through basketball. Instead it shows the hard damage alcohol can do to people in revealing R-rated fashion. While the first half of the film follows a normal course, the second half isn’t afraid of taking a more realistic path with its characters and situations. I appreciated O’Connor doing this instead of taking the easy route.
Affleck himself has publicly stated that he has dealt with anxiety, depression, and alcoholism over the years. So taking on the role of Cunningham was probably deeply personal to him. He delivers an excellent performance and anchors the film. All of the kids as the basketball players are solid too, though most of them are given only a note or two to play; there’s the flirty one, the shy captain who needs more confidence, the chubby and fun one, etc.
The film is shot and edited with skill, though I would have gone with less freeze frames and lens flares. Rob Simonsen’s music score also goes for subtle piano instead of blaring orchestra most of the time, which is nice.
O’Connor doesn’t change the game with The Way Back, but he does reshape it in some ways with his honest looks at alcoholism. I’d rather see him and Affleck explore new territory like they did with The Accountant if they decide to work together again. They deliver fine work with The Way Back, but its familiar pinnings hold it in “good enough” territory.
My Grade: 7.2/10 (letter grade equivalent: B)
MPA Rating: R (for language throughout including some sexual references)
Running Time: 1h 48min
USA Release Date: March 6th, 2020