Ben Affleck’s new movie The Way Back is a powerful story about loss, the human condition, and finding a way to make your life meaningful again. Is it his Manchester By the Sea?
Ben Affleck returns to the screen in a serious way with The Way Back. Though the trailer may make it seem like a typical sports drama, The Way Back is moreso a film about the human condition. Basketball is a big part of the movie but is used in the film as an outlet for both Ben Affleck’s character Jack Cunningham, as well as his players.
In 2016 Ben’s brother, Casey Affleck, won an Oscar for the film Manchester by the Sea. While watching The Way Back, it was difficult not to see parallels between the two films. Both center around a man who is broken by something that happened in his past and has not dealt with it properly. Life offers both men an opportunity to do something positive in the world to show that they still have value, and through that experience each man begins the healing process.
The slow reveal
In The Way Back we are first introduced to Jack Cunningham through his daily routine. He works construction during the day and drinks from the time he gets off until he passes out at night. Later we see that he also drinks during the day. We know he and his wife are separated or divorced and we know that they’ve experienced loss but we aren’t given the full details as to what happened immediately. We simply come into his life and watch things play out.
We are also shown that Jack’s sister Beth (Michaela Watkins, The Unicorn) is worried about him but that he won’t allow her to offer help. After going through Jack’s routine a few times he gets a call to come back to his old high school to meet with the head of the school. In Manchester by the Sea, Casey’s character gets a call about a death in the family. He’s been away from home and now has to walk back into a place we know he’s been avoiding.
Even after each character is back in their old environments and people from their past come back into their lives, we aren’t immediately made aware of what happened. We’re first made to care about where the character is now and what they’re trying to do to move forward. We get clues and teases about what happened but we have to wait on the details. It is in the middle of the film during The Way Back and more towards the end in Manchester by the Sea but the reveal is powerful in both films and helps you understand what the character is dealing with.
The human condition
One thing both films did was make their characters feel real. While the Affleck brothers are clearly the center of the film, The Way Back and Manchester do a great job of giving the people around them full lives. In The Way Back, this is mostly done through his players and assistant coach. Al Madrigal (Night School) plays the assistant coach of the basketball team, Dan. When they first meet, Jack asks why he didn’t just take over as the head coach and Dan shares his story. His mother is ill and his sister takes care of her during the day but he does at night. It’s a sacrifice he’s made and it’s his priority. That’s very real.
In the film, Jack starts to pay attention to his players as well and is given opportunities to look out for them in little ways that go a long way. As we learn about Jack’s past, we realize what basketball was to him and that his childhood was not great. His kids have their own situations at home that basketball seems to be an escape from and he recognizes this and uses it to help encourage them and mold them as men. As someone who has used basketball as an escape from his own difficulties in life, this all resonated with me in a very real way.
While I really wanted to dive into the kids lives more than we did, I understand that wasn’t the focus of the movie and respect the decision.
Now, if you’re like me you’re always worried that these sports movies won’t take a realistic approach toward the basketball element but I think this is one area where The Way Back excels. Basketball at no point becomes the primary focus, but once it becomes part of the movie, it remains a constant in the foreground. There may be one or two technical things that a basketball junkie may question but these aren’t too egregious and they don’t take away from the film in any way.
I will make it plain that there is no huge miracle that takes place on the basketball court. There is, however, a realistic change within the team, the players, and Jack that occurs through basketball. Jack’s decisions as a coach are meant to both motivate his players in their lives, and improve their chances of winning games. Those decisions were great and worked on both fronts.
I personally appreciated the way that basketball was used in this movie in a way that doesn’t cheapen the product as a whole, or the message.
The Way Back is a movie that is going to resonate with a lot of people. Whether you’re a sports fan or not you will relate to the humanity in the film. You may relate to a man like Jack who has been broken and hasn’t found a way to move forward. You may connect to the way his life is spiraling at different points in the movie. You may also see yourself in one of the kids or recognize them as kids you knew growing up.
There are several moments in this film that will make you emotional. One scene in particular between Ben Affleck’s character Jack and his wife Angela, played by Janina Gavankar (Sleepy Hollow), had to be cut short because Ben’s real life crossed over into the moment. Ben’s alcoholism was a big part of why his marriage to Jennifer Garner fell apart and at that moment things that he was feeling poured out of him. O’Connor decided to cut most of it because it was too raw but that scene is still powerful.
What did you think of The Way Back? Let us know in the comments below.
The Way Back is a must-watch film and is currently available in theaters.