This week we discovered that after months of endless arguing between Bernie fans and Warren fans, it turned out most people just want to stick with what’s safe and known. I thought about that a lot as The Way Back showed me a film I have already seen so many times. There are no surprises here. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what you’re getting. The little edge offered by its R-rating doesn’t keep it from sliding right down the middle. Nevertheless, I sat there enjoying every minute. Its prewritten moves offered a familiar journey I was happy to take.
If you’re not familiar with the trailer, The Way Back focuses on Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham, a sad alcoholic who gets a little shot at redemption when the high school he graduated from asks him to coach their horrible basketball team. He doesn’t want to do it at first but finds he can’t resist. Once in, he lazily tries not to care but finds he can’t resist. When things are going their best, his sad alcoholic ways reassert themselves and he finds he can’t resist.
Despite being a somewhat cookie cutter movie, The Way Back does find its own way to express character from within its limiting narrative context. Having Ben Affleck as a lead helps a lot. Affleck’s rocky celebrity has come to overshadow his work to the extent that I think we often forget what a good actor he is, particularly here in this stage of his career. Hulking and somber and just worn out in a way that feels deeper than acting, we don’t have a lot of people filling roles quite like this. Affleck started his career as a bully, then became the hero. Now he’s an avatar of post-prime regret, playing characters of extraordinary talent who let it all go to waste. It’s the kind of thing that elevated B-genre fare like Triple Frontier and even lent a little twinkle of character to his Batman.
Here Affleck is both tragic and never too difficult to like, making it a very successful usage of the actor. His alcoholism appears to function primarily as an expression of grief (he gives it up without struggle for a while) and I like how he drinks night and day yet still manages to work two jobs with most of his functionality, which hit me as realism strange as that sounds. Some cliche is at play here, but alcohol abuse itself isn’t the character’s defining point and I appreciated the care displayed in that.
Other choices help as well. Since the film does not have time to be about Cunningham and his basketball team, it shortchanges the basketball team, telling their story in fast forward, as though leaning on our familiarity to hit those beats and make their impact felt more by focusing on Cunningham. In our eyes, a win for them is more a win for him. A lot of films would fail by trying to honor both plots equally. The Way Back chooses a side and wins because of it.
One assumes this is the mark of Gavin O’Connor, who already mined both sides with Miracle and Warrior and should just be a trusted commodity with sports movies from this point on. The film feels gritty and lived-in, small and focused, yet still makes us care about its basketball team plot without really showing us much of the basketball team.
We’ll see if the film actually does well. Lately even non-Netflix movies feel almost as ephemeral as Netflix movies. Even if a whole lot of people miss The Way Back, I suspect it’ll enjoy a longer than normal spot in their memory, similar to how people never seem to forget Warrior. It’s a little softer than that film, but the heart is just as sincere, and in the end that’s the win.