BEN Affleck has won an Oscar for scriptwriting for “Good Will Hunting”, an Oscar for producing in “Argo” and also won acclaim as a director in “Argo” and “Gone Baby Gone”. As an actor, we last saw him playing villain to Anne Hathaway in the confused Netflix film, “The Last Thing He Wanted”.
He now goes dramatic in “The Way Back”, a combination basketball movie about an underdog team and the story of redemption of a recovering alcoholic. This was released by Warner Bros. digitally because of the global pandemic. Ben Affleck delivers a splendid performance in the lead role of Jack Cunningham, a loser whose life is a mess after a tragedy happened causing his marriage to crumble.
He’s now a construction worker who spends his nights drinking in a bar, wallowing in anguish and self-loathing. Ben does all this without going over the top and reigning in the melodrama. His mom, sister, and also his ex-wife, all express concern about his drinking problem and his living an isolated life.
Jack then gets a call from a priest at the Bishop Hayes Catholic School where he was the top basketball player in high school, leading their team then to championship. The priest offer him to be the school’s basketball coach after the current one had a heart attack. He’s hesitant at first but relents and accepts the job.
The coaching job works wonders on him and also on his team as he whips the student players into shape. He helps kids with potential, specially Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who’s very good but doesn’t get any encouragement from his own father. Jack can relate as he himself had serious dad issues with his own father before.
Slowly, the erstwhile team of losers starts winning games and Jack stops his drinking. But Director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”, “The Accountant”) doesn’t want this to be your usual familiar film with the traditional happy ending where everyone turns perky and positive. There are some victories, but some things turn sour, particularly when a personal setback drives Jake back to the bottle.
You’ve seen this kind of movie before in other sports flicks about underdog teams like “Bad News Bears”, “Hoosiers”, “Slapshot”. In fairness to the basketball sequences here, they’re filmed with some sense of reality. They feel like real games, the kids are real, their opposing teams look real, even the referees and other people.
As a story of redemption, Ben treats his role as Jack on a very personal note. He knows it’s a damaged, not so pleasant character and you can really feel the disappointment he had over the flaws and failures in his past life bottled up inside of him, specially when he learned that his wife has a new love life. It’s a role that echoes strongly the Oscar-winning role of his brother Casey Affleck as the grieving dad with deep emotional scars in “Manchester by the Sea”.