“The Way Back” is directed by Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant, Jane Got a Gun) and stars Ben Affleck (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Town), Al Madrigal (Night School, About a Boy), Michaela Watkins (Big Mouth, The Unicorn), and Janina Gavankar (Arrow, True Blood). This film is about Jack Cunningham, a man who grew up to reign as one of the finest players on the basketball team within the high school he went to. However, he did not really associate much with the game from that point forward. Now, he is given an opportunity to coach a younger generation of players, which could lead to redemption. Only thing is, the combined skills or legacy of the team was never as prominent as it was since Jack played.
Well, if I had a couple words to give right now, it would be a phrase that begins with “holy” and ends with “crap.” For context, I originally saw “The Way Back” in March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take a massive effect here in the United States. However, if you want me to be quite honest with you, even though I do my best to give a boisterous commitment to Scene Before, I saw no real rhyme or reason to review the film at the time. For the record, I saw the movie when I was staying in Los Angeles, so I was sort of in vacation mode. I was busy at Universal, trying new restaurants, checking out the scene in Burbank and Santa Monica, I was having too much of a blast to have anything else interfere. But… Another factor to consider is that when it comes to content on my blog, movie reviews didn’t really matter much for a long time. I felt that I needed to make a temporary shift to discuss the goings on of the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to stay relevant while also preserving the content I already have. I had to get a little conservative. So let me just start off by saying, this movie was good the first time I watched it in the theater. Remember the theater? Such a fun place. But, for all I know, things could change, so I bought the film on Blu-ray to see what I would think of it now.
To be completely truthful, it might be slightly better the second time. But you also have to consider something, I was in a MUCH BETTER mood. The day of my initial viewing had a ton of conflict. Everything started closing. The audience for the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” taping I was set to go ended up getting cancelled. I had to deal with the fact that a relatively new virus could possibly kill me at any instant. If you’re wondering, I’m fine, I have never experienced any full-on symptoms of the virus as of yet. And now, with a great mood, comes a great responsibility. “The Way Back” is one of my favorite films of the year. To finish this familiar phrase, I’m gonna remind you that this year is 2020 and that REALLY does not say much.
This film is directed by Gavin O’Connor, who also directed “The Accountant” back in 2016, a superb action film that I related to at the time, and I still look back on today. Mainly because of its gritty and admirable portrayal of a man who happens to be on the autism spectrum. The film also has some cool action scenes and I really liked Anna Kendrick in the film as well, she was very charming. Here, this film is a little less action packed, but given how much of the film revolves around basketball, they did make the atmosphere around that sport feel like it could pack a punch or two here and there. The games were relatively fun to watch regardless of the scenario or matchup and the tone felt simple, but pure. That’s what the film as a whole kind of feels like. The movie, throughout, feels kind of gloomy, but I don’t mind that, it works. If you look at some of the marketing or the IMDb description of the film, you might think for a second that it is about a basketball team or a guy trying to coach the team to victory. It’s not, really.
The film centers around Ben Affleck’s character of Jack Cunningham, and the movie does dive deep into his contributions to the high school’s legacy, his heavy relation to the sport of basketball, and how much of an impact he made in terms of those two things. But this movie also feels like an allegory on why you shouldn’t drink.
Here’s the thing about men… They like their alcohol… But, here in “The Way Back” it is a case as to why you should be cautious with alcohol. “The Way Back” handles this sideplot very well. So well in fact that “The Way Back” really feels like two really good movies in one package. One of which is about the basketball side of things and the attempt to make a struggling team as relevant as it once was, and the other being the alcoholism allegory. When it comes to Ben Affleck in this film, I cannot imagine him taking his particular role in the film just so happening to be a coincidence. The movie represents a side of Ben Affleck that believe it or not appears to exist in real life. For those of you have followed Ben Affleck in recent years, you’d know that he plays the DCEU’s Batman, or more accurately, he used to. He quit the role due to fear that he’d drink himself to death. Knowing this prior to going into “The Way Back,” it makes Ben Affleck a stellar casting choice and therefore a seemingly personal film on his part. It doesn’t feel like a guy losing control over his life because of a drinking problem. It feels like Ben Affleck reenacting events from his life or providing a look into what he feels his future could have been or could end up being depending on the way time flows.
This movie is shot, graded, and compiled beautifully. As if the audio for the film made me feel like I was a part of it already based on the basketball scenes, the camerawork and other technical aspects made me want to jump in further. It matches well with the movie’s vibe, even though there are probably other movies I will go back to for their technical aspects first. However, I do need to say one thing, and I will need to revisit this topic at some point to see where I officially rank it, but “The Way Back” may have one of my single favorite final shots from a movie I have ever seen. The only other movies that may compete with this for me are “Blade Runner 2049,” “The Third Man,” “Roma,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Inception,” and “The Dark Knight.” “Spider-Man 2” might be somewhere up there too… Without going into much detail, the final shot not only looks crisp and beautiful, but when combined with the dramatic score, it seemed to symbolize everything that this movie was all about and gave a sense of satisfaction. I could not take my eyes off it!
There’s not many issues I have with “The Way Back.” I think if you are going to go into this movie expecting a coach trying to get through a basketball season and lead a team to victory, you’re going to get that. But it’s not necessarily that kind of movie when the puzzle is fully assembled. It’s about why drinking can be dangerous and what it can do to people. I enjoyed the basketball aspect, but I stayed for the drinking aspect.
In the end, “The Way Back” is a really good movie and one of the finest of the year so far. Ben Affleck gives a stellar performance that, once again, feels personal. It feels like he really wanted to do this movie based on the effort he put in alone. I’m starting to like Gavin O’Connor as a director, and who knows? Maybe he and Affleck will continue to be a winning duo. Kind of like Michael Caine and Christopher Nolan. “The Way Back” was worth a rewatch specifically for this review, and will probably be worth more viewings in the future. I’m going to give “The Way Back” an 8/10.
Thanks for reading this review! Just want to remind everyone that I recently went to the movie theater for the first time since March! For those of you who don’t know, phase 3 was put into place in Massachusetts as of July 6th. As a result, a very limited number of theaters opened, and I went to see “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.” That movie will be the subject of a future review. Be sure to follow Scene Before either with an email or WordPress account so you can stay tuned for more great content! Also, check out the official Scene Before Facebook page! I want to know, did you see “The Way Back?” What did you think about it? Or, what is your favorite movie involving basketball? Let me know down below! Scene Before is your click to the flicks!