To start with, The Way Back is another addition to the large list of underdog sports movies. Gavin O’Conner has great experience of making emotionally powerful sports movies like Miracle and Warrior. He has the habit of giving as equal importance to his central characters as the riveting on-field action. Here too the focus is firmly on its central character, Jack Cunningham(Ben Affleck).
Jack Cunningham is a construction worker with not much to look forward to in his life apart from getting drunk at the bar everyday after his work. He regularly gets passed out at the bar after drinking and somebody helps him home everyday. He doesn’t attend his friends’ calls and looks disinterested in his sisters house on thanksgiving day. His sister is upset with him for being not available for friends and family. He gets irritated at these talks. We are not provided with much history in the initial scenes, but Jack’s eyes are never quiet. Them eyes look glassy just like any other severe alcoholic but say a lot about a troubled past and disturbed relationships. He gets a shot at redemption when he receives a call from Father Devine of Bishop Hayes, where he used to be a super star basketball player during his high school days. The father invites him to step in as the head coach of the current basketball team as their coach had a heart attack. Even for taking that decision, he has to finish the entire beer cans stored inside his fridge. He is reluctant initially, but decides to give it a try. Bishop Hayes team is a far cry from the team of Jack’s high school days and haven’t even reached the playoffs in decades. To add to the unfocused bunch of players he gets an algebra teacher Bran as his assistant. Jack has to inject passion and urgency in this evidently disjointed and disinterested group which has won only one game all season.
The script sheds light into Jack’s personal tragedy which turned him an alcoholic, only gradually and succeeds in keeping us hooked to his personal story as well. His marriage, tragedy with his son, the seperation from his wife; we get to know Jack slowly along with on-field action. We can see his knowldge of the game, passion and winning menatality, but his alcoholism comes in the way of his reputation at work, the remarks of Memorial’s coach, Dan finding beer cans in his office, the uncontrollable rage he shows at referees decisions to name a few of those incidents. However, he succeeds in winning the students and it soon starts to show in the filed. They soon put themselves in a realistic position of qualifying for the play-offs.
The title the way back is quite well thought out one as it is not only about second shot at life for coach Jack but also a chance to regain some pride for the Bishop Hayes team who haven’t played a playoff game after Jack’s school days.
The basketball actions are realistically pictured. From the practice sessions to the tension-filled on-field actions, from the players to the coaches, from the bench to the gallery, all the visuals were gripping even though we are sure where it is all headed. Editing by David Rosenbloom and scores by Rob Simonsen have to be mentioned in this context as both have blended brilliantly.
The present lifestyle of Jack, his tragic backstory, the divorse, the loneliness were all situations usually filmmakers use to inject melodrama, but O’connor does well in keeping it realistic and emotional at the same time.
The story is a deep character study of its central character and Ben Affleck is at his remarkable best as Jack Cunnigham here. He has ofcourse worked on his physique for his portrayal of a fat, alcoholic, out-of-action Basketball genius to start with. Then, he has given the right amount of detailing and variations in his expressions. The way he enjoys his beer, the sadness and pain he carries through out to the final emotional outburst, the sheer rage on the basketball pitch against the refereeing decisions, and then that satisfactory winning smile which fills our heart; Affleck was a real treat to watch.
While Affleck overshadows pretty much everyone else in the movie, two noteworthy performances come from the two boys in his team. Brandon Wilson as Brandon and Melvin Gregg as Marcus demanded attention even in their brief screen time. Ganina Gavankar as Jack’s wife Angela looked good in a few of the scenes but couldn’t be anywhere near Affleck in the emotional sequences.
A towering Ben Affleck performance and the lifelike approach even while remaining within the genre conventions, make it a highly satisfying experience.