For better or worse, Ben Affleck is a very famous movie star. He’s been a very famous movie star for over 20 years and has checked all the boxes a very famous movie star’s life includes: starred in blockbuster movies (to varying levels of success) , romanced very famous stars, slathered in tabloid gossip, won Oscars, starred in terrible movies, went to rehab and had very famous divorces. If Affleck had risen to these heights in any other era before 1992, he might’ve been remembered as just another classic movie star who had his personal problems but would be written off because “it was the old days.” Affleck has been a victim of not only his own vices, but also the worst part of the superhero movie boom and faced blowback from the #MeToo movement. He may be a good ol’ movie star, but the world around him is not like the olden days. So what does Affleck do with all of his charm and obvious talent to stay in a world that has passed him by? Lay himself at the mercy of his own demons.
It’s commendable that Affleck would even make (or do press for) The Way Back considering it’s easy to see Affleck’s real life in the fictional story. Jack Cunningham (Affleck) was a high school basketball star in his younger days, the envy of his local California coastal community. Jack, of course, is no longer in his younger days. He’s older, bloated, bearded and heavily-dependent on booze to get him through the day. Jack starts the day with a beer in the shower, pours liquor into his work thermos and stumbles out of the bar every night. One day, he gets a call from his old school asking him to coach their struggling basketball team. After a few games wearing an ill-fitting sports coat and swearing at the wayward teens, Jack starts to see a chance at personal redemption by motivating the boys to push themselves.
If you’ve seen or read any interview Affleck has given on the press tour for The Way Back, you’d know that Affleck is a recovering alcoholic. To call The Way Back “cathartic” for Affleck would be like calling Gigli “a mild misstep.” But The Way Back is not “The Ben Affleck Sympathy Show,” he came to work. In his best performance since Gone Girl, Affleck’s portrayal of alcoholism is nuanced and shows the pathetic repetition in the life of a binge drinker. There’s no sense of joy or even desperation in Jack’s drinking, it’s just so ingrained into his daily routine that he doesn’t know what else to do. Seeing Jack down an entire fridge full of beers almost in-rhythm while trying to rationalize not coaching the team is both fascinating and pathetic. Jack has his moments of drunken rage and stupidity, but The Way Back is more focused on the sullen rut of depression Jack is trapped in and the scraping he does to pull himself out.
It’s the true diamond in the familiar rough of the script by director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, The Accountant) and Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night, Out of the Furnace). Hints of Hoosiers, Coach Carter and a spattering of other inspirational sports dramas are found in The Way Back. It’s not even O’Connor’s first run at a coach whipping a team of ruffians into shape (2004’s Miracle). Still, the tropes are ever present, from the overly-arogant player (Melvin Gregg) whose attitude gets him kicked-off the team, the secretly-talented player (Brandon Wilson) with an ignorant father, and the comedic relief (Charles Lott Jr.). The Way Back hits familiar beats but, again, at least O’Connor and Ingelsby doesn’t let its main character off so easy. Sure Jack has a concerned family and a distant ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) keeping her distance from their shared tragedy, but the tragedy itself was slow and follows Jack around through shared friends, hence his social distancing through drinking. It’s simpler than O’Connor and Affleck’s last collaboration (the convoluted and drab The Accountant), yet more emotionally complex than O’Connor’s last sports movie Warrior. He clearly has a hand at treating macho male American stereotypes with realism and respect with stripped-down filmmaking.
But again, this is Affleck’s show. The most fascinating thing is how he took the things that reinvigorated his career post-The Town (buffer physique, larger presence, lower voice, bearded face) and turned it into characteristics of a broken man. Jack’s bloated, lumbering demeanor is impossible to distinguish from Affleck’s own personal exhaustion from being (and leaving) Batman and the disappointment of his last directorial project Live By Night, not to mention the collapse of his personal life. But whatever flaws Affleck shattered in his own life, he somehow pieces them back together to play Jack fearlessly. The way he looks like he’s about to explode simply through being in public wearing a wool sports coat or through his crooked smile so put-on that his teeth could crack under pressure might be the most relatable role he’s ever taken on. Jack knows his story is not complete, but merely taking the first step is the bravest effort.
And that’s the thesis of The Way Back: the struggle of the first step out. It’s the act of looking one’s self in the mirror and wanting something to change, both for Jack and his players. O’Connor has made a mature and unapologetic look at one form of Blue Collar American grief through an actor whose life certainly fits that bill. It’s not so much a comeback for Affleck, but a reminder of how good he is at acting when he believes (or maybe even lives) the role. Sure he’ll still be a very famous movie star until the day he dies, but at least he’s starting to realize that that’s not good enough anymore.