Film Reviews

The Way Back: Ben Affleck Exorcises Some Demons in a Career-Best Performance

The Way Back is a sports movie that dares to keep going beyond the big game. It also features Ben Affleck at his most vulnerable and transparent. Many actors would rather steer away from the obvious after going through incredibly public struggles with addiction. Affleck, instead, made a movie about it. The result might just be the best film of his career.

One of film history’s great counterfactuals is what would have happened if Ben Affleck played Will Hunting instead of Matt Damon? How differently would their careers have gone if Ben had been the star of Good Will Hunting instead of just co-star and co-writer and his best bud Damon had played the Chuckie character? Would we be looking at some kind of alt-history in which Affleck stars in All the Pretty Horses and The Talented Mr. Ripley while Damon sacrifices himself to the Michael Bay movie gods and makes Armageddon?

It seems unlikely, largely because Affleck and Damon are two very different people in terms of career ambition. Affleck has always seemed more preoccupied with the idea of being a movie star than his childhood pal, and he’s certainly far more susceptible to narcissism (the gratuitous shirtless scene in Argo, a film he wrote and directed, comes to mind) and self-destruction (how many comebacks has he needed in his career?).

Beyond that, however, this “what if?” scenario is hard to seriously entertain because it seems absurd to assume Good Will Hunting would have been equally effective with Affleck in the title role. He’s not right for the part, doesn’t play internal emotions as well as Damon. Also, not to be rude, he’s just not the same caliber of actor Damon is. A Good Will Hunting with Affleck as the star probably doesn’t explode in pop culture and end with the two pals on stage at the Oscars excitedly shouting out thanks like two guys at last call.

Film history went the way it was supposed to. Damon carefully navigated an incredibly respectable career and remarkably quiet private life. Affleck became an inescapable celebrity with near-constant tabloid coverage (remember Bennifer?), the occasional good movie (Changing Lanes, Hollywoodland, The Town, Argo, Gone Girl), and a whole lot of bad ones (Pearl Harbor, Paycheck, Reindeer Games, Surviving Christmas, Gigli, Batman v Superman).

As a result, any respect that flows Affleck’s way tends to only ever meet him halfway. For example, Argo won the Best Picture Oscar, but he wasn’t even nominated for starring in and/or directing the film. The only Oscar he personally took home that night was for his role as producer.

Affleck’s celebrity has always made it hard for us to see him on screen and feel like we’re looking at Ben Affleck the actor instead of Ben Affleck the movie star. Heck, fans still call his version of Batman “Batfleck” – some lovingly, others not so much.

Not helping: when he does mount his periodic artistic comebacks, they tend to be in projects that mirror his personal life. For example, Hollywoodland – a George Reeves biopic/murder mystery about the sad decline of a comic book actor – is clearly the type of thing Affleck would be drawn to after his Daredevil experience. Similarly, The Way Back might as well be called Ben Affleck’s Struggles with Alcoholism.

Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Warrior), The Way Back features easily one of the best performances of Affleck’s career. However, there’s an awful lot of Affleck simply playing himself here. I don’t mean that literally. Thanks to Kevin Smith, Affleck has actually gone down the “play an exaggerated version of yourself” road a couple of times. That’s not exactly what’s he doing here.

Affleck’s Way Back character – Jack Cunningham – is a former high school basketball star who pissed it all away, later lost a son to tragedy and a wife to a long-term separation, and is practically showering himself in alcohol when the unexpected offer comes to coach his alma mater’s struggling hoops squad. So, a one-to-one, Jack Cunningham=Ben Affleck comparison doesn’t quite work but it’s still pretty close.

We are, after all, talking about an actor who has been to rehab for alcohol addiction three different times in the last 19 years, most recently in late 2018, and went through a long-term separation from wife Jennifer Garner before officially divorcing. So, when a newly sober Jack Cunningham tries to make amends with estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) and admits he should have been a better husband and man for her it’s so tempting to read it as pure autofiction, with Jack as Affleck and Angela standing in for Garner.

Affleck has done little to downplay this reading of the film. In his recent New York Times profile – the one where he admitted he probably would have drunk himself to death if he stuck around to play Batman any longer – Affleck said the quiet part out loud and admitted he poured much of his own experiences with alcoholism into The Way Back.

It’s hardly a surprise. After completing his latest rehab stint in October 2018, Affleck took to Instagram to declare: “The support I have received from my family, colleagues, and fans means more to me than I can say. I hope down the road I can offer an example to others who are struggling.” The Way Back is that “down the road” example he was talking about, a wildly transparent dramatization of his own experience with the disease.

This type of storytelling doesn’t always work. Watching an actor obviously work through their own personal problems on screen can be remarkably distracting, and The Way Back is by no means subtle about it. There is hardly a spare moment in the first 10 minutes where Affleck’s character isn’t either drinking or carrying around a beer, either concealed in a mug or attached to his hand like glue. The evening before accepting the coaching job, Jack Cunningham goes through what looks to be an entire 24-pack of beer, and the thought is never far from your mind that Affleck has probably had multiple nights just like that.

The Way Back is, however, ultimately a sports movie, and there is a comforting familiarity to its formula. The long shot, underdog squad will rally around its newly inspired coach and march towards victory. Fun, zippy montages will fly by. A key game if not several of them will come down to the wire and big-name star at the center of it all will deliver a full-blown Oscar movie speech that will have fans cheering in the aisles.

(That last part actually happened last night. The entire row in front of me was rented out by former basketball players and their coach, all of whom cheered The Way Back’s basketball scenes as if the games were real. Sports in America, amiright.)

Gavin O’Connor – who last directed Affleck in The Accountant – is an old pro at this kind of movie after Miracle (about the hockey’s Team USA vs. Russia “Miracle on Ice”) and Warrior (a just-before-its-time story of two UFC fighters). He takes a rather delicate approach with The Way Back, though, shying away from the potential white savior narrative – Affleck, a white guy, coaches a team of predominantly black and brown players – and always stops to check in on Jack’s life. By the time the apparent big game arrives, it doesn’t actually feel like the true climax because Cunningham’s life away from the court is still a mess.

We want to believe that the joy and sense of accomplishment experienced in a moment of athletic triumph will be the cure-all for Jack’s problems, but, spoiler, that moment comes and goes and the movie doesn’t end. That’s because life doesn’t so easily align to three-act structures with tailor-made climaxes, and a drunk who sobers up long enough to coach some kids remains a drunk liable to fall off the wagon at any moment. This lends The Way Back a bit of an odd narrative shape, with a good half hour to go after the big game, but it feels more honest as a result. Movies like this usually end with a guy exorcising his demons through the experience of coaching a rag-tag team of outcasts. The Way Back is far more sober in its assessment in the daily challenges that await a character like that.

Affleck is a guy who has two Oscars, drove his own batmobile, and fathered three kids with Jennifer Garner, and he’s not even two years sober at this point. He knows a thing or two about the folly of seeking fulfillment externally, and that hard-earned knowledge elevates The Way Back into a rarefied category of sports movie. Ironically, it’s a film and performance good enough to maybe land Affleck in the Oscar race. At this point, he knows that such a reward won’t bring true happiness, but based on The Way Back it would at least be well-deserved.

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