In a recent interview with The New York Times, Ben Affleck was asked why he decided to step away from directing the upcoming “Batman” film. Affleck responded, “I showed somebody ‘The Batman’ script. They said, ‘I think the script is good. I also think you’ll drink yourself to death if you go through what you just went through again.’”
With actors, it can be difficult to separate the art from the artist, but Affleck’s situation is particularly fascinating. By playing Jack Cunningham, a former basketball star fighting with addiction, Affleck has chosen to confront his demons on screen. Luckily, “The Way Back” knows exactly how to use Affleck’s talents, making it one of the most effective sports films in recent memory.
From director Davin O’Connor, “The Way Back” follows Cunningham as he becomes the head basketball coach at his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School. As the season goes on, Cunningham battles his own personal struggles while attempting to turn the team around.
While certainly exploring the issues in Affleck’s personal life, “The Way Back” manages to succeed on its own merit. With O’Connor’s experience as a veteran filmmaker and a swift, surprisingly intelligent script, “The Way Back” exceeds normal expectations of a saccharine sports drama.
As Cunningham, Affleck shines, easily giving his best performance since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Affleck’s sheer physicality and large build lend a certain credibility to the concept of him as a failed basketball star, and he’s able to radiate a brand of saddened intensity that perfectly fits the character.
What makes Affleck’s performance so interesting, however, is how in conversation it is with his own very public life. In certain scenes, his demeanor and rage perfectly reflect the public figure who famously gave an angry drunken rant about Tom Brady on HBO’s “Any Given Wednesday.”
In scenes where Cunningham fights his addiction or relapses, “The Way Back” takes on an extra level of honest pain. Affleck communicates a sense of pure loneliness and confusion that proves both beautiful and unsettling.
But what makes “The Way Back” successful is the balance it's able to strike between character study and sports drama. Affleck certainly makes for a believable fledgling basketball coach, and the actors who comprise the Bishop Hayes basketball team are truly formidable.
In the basketball scenes, O’Connor’s talent as a director is on full display. Basketball may be the hardest sport to properly capture on screen, yet every moment Bishop Hayes is on the court has an athletic authenticity and kinetic energy. Affleck only adds to these scenes with his loud-mouthed persona, driving his players and the referees to the brink.
Coupled with the accuracy of the sport is a clear sense of momentum. As the film rolls on and the audience connects with the players on screen, O’Connor overpowers the viewer with excitement and enthusiasm. As cliché as it may sound, the audience wants to root for this team, largely because of O’Connor’s commitment to their improvement.
O’Connor’s career has often been characterized by this crossroads of male sadness intersecting with the euphoria of competition. In films like “Miracle” and “Warrior,” O’Connor explored similar territory, even if those films are vastly different from the outright despair in “The Way Back.”
What separates “The Way Back” from O’Connor’s previous efforts is the Affleck performance. In that way, “The Way Back” could make an interesting double feature with Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born,” another example of a celebrity publicly reckoning with his own personal struggles through a fictionalized story of fading public relevance.
Years from now, the film’s legacy may be a turning point in Affleck’s career. After years of box office and critical failures, Affleck has found a new gear for himself as an actor, in a way reminiscent of Paul Newman in “The Verdict” or Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights.”
No longer forced to appear in DC films as “Batman,” maybe Affleck will finally reach the brilliance and potential that he showed in “Good Will Hunting,” “The Town” and “Gone Girl.” If his performance in “The Way Back” is any sign of his work to come, he certainly deserves another chance.
Contact Chris Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.