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The Way Back: Ben Affleck returns to form

  • Published at 09:09 pm May 27th, 2020
Directed by Gavin O'Connor, The Way Back was originally titled 'The Has-Been'| Collected

The film was released on March 6, 2020

Ben Affleck took Hollywood by storm at the age of 25. He was and remains the youngest person to have bagged an Oscar for screenwriting. Fifteen years later, Affleck’s third directorial venture Argo, a political thriller set against a backdrop of the Iran Hostage Crisis, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. A bearded Affleck climbed the stairs along with his co-stars, grabbed the much-coveted Oscar statuette and grinned at members of the audience who observed him in awed silence. A rising young director with an undeniable star quality, making films that are thought-provoking to say the least - what not to admire? His stardom appeared solid and unblemished, earned through hard work and talent. Was all of it too good to be true, to last? Did anyone wonder at the time?

Affleck’s rise was so remarkable that it unfortunately rendered his fall from grace too compelling a sight to turn away from. Being a subject of increasing media attention, Affleck’s rocky marriage, alcohol addiction and subsequent sobriety relapses were all well documented for the world to see, eliciting a wave of disapproval. Over the recent years, Ben Affleck went from a boy wonder to a has-been Hollywood star.

Hence, Affleck’s latest film The Way Back, directed by seasoned sports filmmaker Gavin O’Connor, stands as a turning point in the former’s career. The film unveils itself as a mournful tale, revolving around a former basketball star grappling with alcoholism and a broken marriage, giving the two times Academy Award-winning actor and film-maker an extraordinary chance to channel his real-life experiences into the big screen. This is a comeback story through and through, speckled with snapshots of a man briefly sinking with his ship below the surface of all aspects of reality that involve other people, the possibility of better days or life for that matter.

Drawing from the actor's life-time struggle with alcohol addiction, Ben Affleck has approached filming The Way Back as a form of therapy| Collected

Jake Cunningham, the former local star of the Bishop Hayes Catholic High School basketball team, is now a full-blown alcoholic construction worker, trudging through everyday life with rage written all over his beet-red face. He is separated from his wife, estranged from his mother and sister, and unable to muster any semblance of control over his present life. The success that he savored during his fleeting high school days is now long behind him, and every day is bleaker than the last. He addresses life like one would come to terms with a recurrent nightmare, shrugging it off and eventually ceasing to be taken by surprise at its enduring intensity. On his part, there is a disturbing acceptance of day-to-day life's decay, and comforting familiarity with self-hatred. However, when he is contacted by his alma mater to coach the ragtag high school basketball team, redemption seems to beckon him. But will he take it, be humble and brave enough to confront his vices, and let go?

Sports dramas almost always work due to our predictable inclination to root for the underdog. Director of notable sports films Warrior and Miracle, O’Connor is well-versed in all the tropes and clichés that have been proven effective in this genre. A loser coach decides to save a losing team and vice versa – the premise of a formulaic sports film and the direction that O’Connor’s latest film also seems to be taking for a while. But The Way Back proves itself far superior to the otherwise enjoyable, generic films of this genre when the plot supposedly veers off course and takes risks, which in turn elevates it from the mere commotion and thrills of the game.  

No matter how many times the ball goes through the hoop, it is not enough to rewrite a man's past or erase his regrets, Jake knows this all too well. The game cannot absolve him of his crimes. In Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s younger brother Casey played a similar character, shunned from the outside world by choice, wallowing in a grief too great to forget, and living in a time loop where every day became indistinguishable from the last or the next. In a remarkable moment of clarity, Casey’s character refuses to walk away from his pain knowing he simply cannot, and says in a calm, resigned voice, “I can’t beat it.” 

Played by Ben Affleck in his career-best performance, Jake Cunningham can beat all his opponents on the Basketball court with aplomb, but can he beat himself?

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