Ben Affleck brings new grit to typical sports drama genre with ‘The Way Back’

'The Way Back' currently has an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and is certified fresh.

Warner Bros. Pictures

'The Way Back' currently has an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and is certified fresh.

Released on March 6, Ben Affleck’s new movie “The Way Back” has him perform a role the likes of which we have rarely seen from him before. This time around, Affleck once again teams up with director Gavin O’Connor (having worked together on “The Accountant” in 2016), giving what has been described as “the performance of his career.”

“The Way Back” is a necessary, emotional journey that provides insight into the sometimes complex issue of masculinity, particularly within the sporting environment.  Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is a former high school basketball star who gave up the opportunity to continue playing at college on “a full ride to Kansas” and “just quit” as a significant loss resulted in alcoholism taking hold. Now, he is surprised to be offered the coaching job at the same Catholic school he attended, Bishop Hayes High, by the local priest. 

With the team in need of inspiration and Cunningham in need of reinvigoration, a redemptive opportunity arises for him. Now a damaged construction worker, Cunningham must attempt to simultaneously rebuild his life and bring the underperforming team of his alma mater some long-awaited success.

“The Way Back” could easily have pursued a well-trodden narrative, typical of the sporting drama genre. Yet, Affleck’s outstanding performance is enough to elevate a predictable storyline to a product worthy of its positive early reviews. It is a characteristically different type of role that Affleck assumes — compared to those in his past — that deserves recognition.

Affleck has featured in a range of all-time classics from “Gone Girl” to “Argo,” but never before has he starred as a face for such unique suffering. Cunningham’s glory days are long in the past, and O’Connor’s direction perfectly captures the extent to which he has fallen as a result of alcohol dependence.

Cunningham is uncompromising and driven, but has a dark side, with curses and drunken episodes representing the raw nature of the struggles of not only Affleck’s character, but of viewers who have suffered similarly. 

The intertwined narratives of the damaging effects of alcoholism and sporting grit are well played out, perfectly captured by a poignant moment in which he symbolically curls into a ball, admitting just how serious the problem has become.

As the movie develops and its plot intensifies, its primary success comes to the fore. Affleck’s protagonist feels wronged and epitomizes the damaged athlete, the like of which we sometimes see when they are forced into retirement. 

However, there is a discernible uptick in his story as he is given a newfound purpose. As the team improves, Cunningham (and all men, for that matter) triumphs with them. It is a triumph for persistence and those who, in the words of Affleck himself, “know what it’s like to get knocked down, and have to get back up again.”

Whether a male sports fan or not, this movie is sure to inspire you.