The Way Back (2020)

A powerful narrative blending themes of alcoholism, masculinity, religion, blue-collar America, & basketball, TWB is a melancholic redemption parable – achieved through somber tonalism, cinematography tints, & Affleck’s performance. 8.5/10.

Plot Synopsis: Jack Cunningham was a high school basketball superstar who suddenly walked away from the game for unknown reasons. Years later, he’s now stuck in a meaningless job and struggling with alcoholism — the very thing that ruined his marriage and his hope for a better life. But Jack soon gets a shot at redemption when he becomes the basketball coach for his alma mater, a program that has fallen on hard times since his teenage glory days.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Review

Live By Night. The Accountant. Triple Frontier. J&SB. A Near-Perfect Batman in Films Not Knowing What To Do With Him

Academy Award-Winner Ben Affleck Was In A Downward Spiral; The Way Back Starts Here

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

Live By Night. The Accountant. Triple Frontier. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Academy Award-winner Ben Affleck was in a downward spiral from his previous heights of decade-great Best Actor-worthy performances/direction like in Argo and Gone Girl. Then came his portrayal of Batman: the most comic-accurate, hard-R, and – arguably – best version of Caped Crusader to ever grace the screen.. sadly wasted in messily-scripted, tonally-confused, studio-rushed films like Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and (Joss)tice League. How does one recover from such deafening (circumstantial) failure, when you did your part ~flawlessly & it wasn’t even your fault? The Way Back from the metaphorical bottom of the mountain you once reigned supreme on is a treacherous one, but – luckily – this film puts him at a very good position on the hike. A powerful narrative blending themes of alcoholism, masculinity, religion, blue-collar America, mental health, & basketball, TWB is a melancholic redemption parable – achieved through somber tonalism, cinematography tints, & one of Ben Affleck’s greatest performances. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you: the first great film of 2020.

Like If Chopin Scored A Sports Doc

A Rich, Somber Tonalism In Melancholic Score & Utilization Of Cinematographic Tints To Create A Thematically-Resonant Atmosphere

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

Most instantly chord-striking about The Way Back is its unforgettable score & visual cue. The film is tinted with a dark blueish-gray visual overlay, muting the colors of its story in a hazy depressive atmosphere by photographic motif that establishes a grim, melancholic mood from the first scene. This choice by cinematographer Eduard Grau is mirrored compositionally & lighting-wise throughout the film’s shots and locations – all bleeding pure sadness, loneliness, and stylistically-doleful feel (until that final shot of golden sunset against the Malibu ocean reverses the tide in the last scene highlighting Jack’s final redemption) bolstered by a masterpiece soundtrack. Though it might be wildly-premature to call it – being barely a month since last year’s ceremony, Rob Simonsen’s score in The Way Back should secure a frontrunner nomination for next year’s Academy Awards right now. The soundscape is magical – a meld of somber piano cascades, dark pads, light cymbal taps, and crescendoing/accelerandoing melodies so virtuosic and powerfully-emotional/depth-filled, it feels like Beethoven or Chopin scored this film. It is easily the best score to ever grace a sports film, and one of the best I’ve heard in years – together with its visuals setting a dark, disconsolate, hope-deprived audiovisual stage for the film’s heavy thematic choices.

A Powerful, Poignant, Personal Narrative

Themes Of Alcoholism, Religion, Masculinity, Blue-Collar America, Depression, & Basketball

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

The Way Back is one of the heaviest films I’ve seen of late. The film follows Jack Cunningham: an alcoholic, divorced basketball-star-turned-construction-worker who also lost his child to cancer for one of the lowest points any human can get to upon first introduction. The scripting of this character opens up avenues for countless themes the film expositions brilliantly: grief, religion, masculinity, fame, blue-collar America, depression/mental health, and the concept of sports. First and foremost in TWB though is the heart-and-soul that drives it: alcoholism. The film paints one of the most powerful, poignant, and passionate portrayals of the topic ever put to-screen – aptly analyzing the safety net and universal numbing-lubricant booze can be, tricking your senses into a state of ostensible normalcy through relaxation of inhibitions that’s merely a fleeting distraction from the sadness and tragedy that turns you to it, although a primally-effective one. The masterclass treatise of the heavy topic is even more personal by Ben Affleck’s real-life past struggles with alcoholism, having to draw from the lowest point of his real-world experiences to painfully bring that darkness to screen to paint with artistic integrity such a tearjerking and jaw-droppingly dark look at the plight from an authentic perspective that transcends dramatization. The film also analyzes religion in the context of grief/suffering – where is God when bad stuff happens to good people? It also fits in a study of the fleeting/problematic nature of fame and parental psychology, wherein people latch onto you like parasites or love you more for what you can do for them than who you are: like Cunningham’s dad as the reason Jack forwent D1 and becoming a basketball star. It paints the plight of traditionalized masculinity in the context of societal expectations of stoicism and strength amidst objectively-traumatic/tragic experiences – many of us are conditioned to feel we will be labeled soft or weak if we cry or show emotion, and that bottled-up suppression can exacerbate the problem (and, in large part, helps explain the dramatically-increased numbers of suicides in men compared to women). Finally, it paints the euphoria, metaphor, redemptive power, and divertissement of sports with thematic weight and striking accuracy through one lens: basketball.

The Basketball

A Real, Exhilarating HS Portrayal Of The Sport’s Prerequisites, Archetypes, & Euphoria

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The basketball in The Way Back is more a peripheral plot device, but is nonetheless effective and entertaining. As someone who played multiple years of Varsity Basketball back in HS from the time I was a Freshman, I can attest that TWB portrays the experience with visceral accuracy. All the major archetypes are there – from the showboat ladies’ man who talks a better game than he plays to the quiet leader/assassin who needs a push for optimal achievement to cocky bench players talking like starters to the brutesque Rugby/Football-guy out of his element in the wrong sport. The film magisterially paints the (March Madness-looking) mega-stadiums packed with roaring crowds, thunderous fanfare, and universal investment/escapism we find in sports as a parallel to cinema conceptually. TWB also bleeds a pure feel for the game that many other subject films lack – capturing the determination, hard work, blood, sweat, and tears players put into the game from every walk of life: an equalizer of sociological/socioeconomic factors where nothing matters beyond what you bring to that court and the life lessons and value is tangible for all. Sure, there are only so many ways to do a sports or basketball film narratively, but TWB manages to subvert expectations by following its central arc instead of what happens in the championship – a main character that paints the job of coach with elegance and grace while used as a means to prismatically analyze blue-collar America and alcoholism: Ben Affleck’s sensational Jack Cunningham.

One Of Ben Affleck’s Greatest Performances

Already A 2x-Academy Award Winner, Affleck’s Portrait Of Blue-Collar America & Man’s Plight: His Best Work Since Early 2010’s

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

Already boasting a dazzling 2x Academy Award-winning filmography (Argo and Good Will Hunting), Ben Affleck outdoes himself to delivers one of the greatest performances of his entire career in The Way Back – easily his best work since the early 2010’s. A show-stealing portrait of the blue-collar American man, Ben Affleck infuses the canvas with authentic realism stemming from his own battles with alcoholism – as well as experiential poise and fine-tuned nuance in every minutia of how he elevates the character. The development Jack Cunningham is given over the <2 hour journey is sublime: wherein he’s down-on-his-luck sneaking tequila at the construction site before spending another long night at the bar by film’s beginning, to a changed man having conquered his demons and redemptively found his Way Back through therapeutic sobriety by film’s end. Between those two polar opposite points of characterization is basketball – a ghostly symbol of lost-love and fake familial bonds he threw away but fate put back in his lap: one that teaches him how to be human again and touch others’ lives in a positive way through coaching at his alma mater. The film’s portrayal of coaching is one of the most elegant in sports-cinema history, painting through multiple examples the profound impact a father-figure and moral authority/motivator can have on young men (brought to life by suitable supporting performances as well) still learning how the world works. Even after Jack is kicked off the team for one slip-up amidst the most harrowing hospital deja-vù experience imaginable, the lasting effects of his contributions resonate in this changed team for the better – a canvas of warm saccharinity and bolstered livelihoods as bright and golden as the sunset backdrop of Jack’s final reconnection with the game he loved on the Malibu coastline.

Flaws

The Obstacle Of Genre & An Admittedly-Contrite Featurette Of Actual Sports Drama

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

Flaws in The Way Back naturally stem from its genre – with an admittedly-contrite sports featurette (although that’s what the film’s point is). There are only so many ways to do a sports movie: underdog team is down-in-the-dumps -> finds plot point or person to rally behind -> character development -> grows and wins in the end. This exoskeleton has been bludgeoned to death over the years by a sea of sports films trying to capitalize on the Americana and nation’s primal value we put in modern gladiatorial entertainment, to the point where it seems impossible to reinvent the wheel. The Way Back comes closest out of anything I’ve seen, subverting many expectations/norms of the genre like even showcasing the championship game or having the coach be with the team in the finale it’s all been building towards and dramatically-boosting cinematic intangibles to Oscar-pedigree level in character development and acting. Even with this Herculean effort though, the sheer number of times we’ve seen the story before makes it borderline ~impossible to create something truly new-feeling. Besides the full-court press of genre, I wish the film featured more basketball – plus a more gradual, nuanced turnaround exposition over time instead of seemingly-momentary. These are byproducts of the film’s design and goal of intellectualizing the sports film and making the actual sports really a side-character/plot-device, but 10-15 more minutes of basketball and escalative narrative would have been welcome (and the film could’ve certainly afforded it at a brisk, somewhat-lean 1hr48min runtime.)

Conclusion

The First Great Film Of 2020

The Proverbial Truly-Cinematic Sports Film We’ve Been Waiting Decades For; And Declamation Of Resurgence For Ben Affleck

Photo Courtesy Of: Warner Bros.

Overall, The Way Back is the proverbial truly-cinematic sports film we’ve been waiting for – as well as the first great film of 2020. 2x-Academy Award Winner Ben Affleck has found his own way back from the real alcoholism experience he packed into every frame of this canvas and a recent downward spiral in his filmography. The film is one of the heaviest, most insightful, and elegant I can remember of late, only bolstered by the primal entertainment value of being a sports film it merely treats as window dressing to a tour-de-force screenplay/story with Oscar-pedigree intangibles. A powerful narrative blending themes of alcoholism, masculinity, religion, blue-collar America, mental health, & basketball, TWB is a melancholic redemption parable – achieved through somber tonalism, cinematography tints, and one of Ben Affleck’s greatest career performances. Welcome back, Mr. Affleck.

Official CLC Score: 8.5/10