When Hollywood depicts a persons struggle with alcoholism, it's a sensitive topic, and I believe you need to get it right. It's something that has touched many people and effected families in all walks of life. What sticks out and was accurately portrayed in The Way Back, is a constant presence of dread, and the blanket of comfort our lead character receives from drinking a cold beer. Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star, a construction worker by day, and bar fly at night. He drinks a beer in the shower. He hides his vodka in a paper cup. It's all manageable. He's a hero of the past, talking about the good ole days on the hardwood, and he's hanging by a thread. He's separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) and desperate for a change. That change comes in the form of a phone call from the pastor of his old high school, asking Jack to take the recently vacated head coaching role of the basketball team. The catch is that this team of underdogs needs Jack as much as Jack needs them, but the journey is finding out if he can get a hold of life, and climb out of the hole that his past trauma's have placed him in.
An easy reference point for The Way Back is that it's a bit of Hoosiers, mixed with Manchester by the Sea, Flight, or The Spectacular Now- all movies that depict alcholism in accurate, but different ways. The script by Brad Ingelsby and O'Connor is slow to start, but it soon allows Affleck to play in the sand, use his personal emotions, and carry himself around like a bull in a China shop. The Way Back methodically reveals the basketball teams progress. At first they have no clue of what it takes to win. Each player finds their own identity, doing it together as one unit, while coach Jack begins to curb his issues, all for the greater good of the team. The cast of high school players are authentic, while O'Conner surrounds Affleck with a cast that is small, but feels natural, lived in, and genuine. Michaela Watkins is delightful as Jack's often worried sister, while Al Madrigal plays a soft spoken assistant coach, keenly aware of what Jack is doing to himself. That's because the addiction is always there, it won't just go away, because it's ready to make impact.
Ben Affleck's portrayal is the heart and soul of The Way Back, it's easily some of his best acting work to date. The performance worked for me because I saw myself in this characters position once, including a scene that felt all too real, where a hungover Jack just can't seem to make it to his teams practice on time. When drinking stops you from functioning or it becomes your only reason for going on, that's when it has a hold of you. You stop to notice the people around you or the things that matter most. It's incredibly hard. Some people do not make it. That's why The Way Back is important. It understands the difficult battle to fight addiction, the courage it takes to come face-to-face with painful circumstances, and the fight to stay on that path. I'm extremely proud of Ben Affleck and The Way Back is a winner.
Written by: Leo Brady
MOVIE: THE WAY BACK
STARRING: BEN AFFLECK; MICHAELA WATKINS; JANINA GAVANKAR;
DIRECTED BY: GAVIN O'CONNOR
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
I have not been shy when it comes to talking about my struggles with addiction and specifically alcholism. Writing about it has become a therapeutic process for me. I'm not afraid to recall what I went through. The blurry nights, bloody noses, waking up with a bottle of vodka at my bedside, my ongoing battle with depression, the list goes on, and no matter how traumatic it has been, I see a great good in talking about it. That's why, I related to, and found comfort in watching The Way Back, a movie about a man that drinks the pain away, loses all sense of self, looks for redemption in a sport he loves, and finds a new purpose in life. At one point, that man was me. I was a former high school football coach. I know this story because I lived it. I remember the nights crying on the floor, the ultimatum my wife gave me, the paralyzing fear, and seeing no way out. For director Gavin O'Connor, he is no stranger to making sports movies (Miracle; Warrior), but he also has a unique ability to stay away from the sports cliches and subvert the genre just enough to make it feel fresh. The Way Back is an addiction picture first and a sports movie second. It's also a comeback for Ben Affleck, whose own struggles with addiction has been documented in tabloids, and he is finding his own path to redemption. The Way Back is a roadmap, filled with emotional turns, big highs, rock bottom lows, and a reminder of just how hard it can be to keep going. Thankfully, I'm 9-years sober, so if there's a will, there is a way.