In the character driven film “The Way Back,” two time Oscar winner Ben Affleck (Argo) gives a solid performance portraying Jack Cunningham. Affleck’s character was an exceptionally talented basketball player, who more than likely would’ve played on a competitive college team and perhaps could’ve even made the transition to the NBA. The school Cunningham played for, Bishop Hayes High School, was once a Juggernaut that amassed victories and championships, but since Cunningham’s playing days in the 1990s, the school has been in a slump and is no longer considered an elite team.
At the start of the film, the current Bishop Hayes head coach has suffered a heart attack. In the interim, Dan (Al Madrigal), who teaches algebra at the school, has taken over as coach of the team. There are some athletes at the school, but Dan is not the right leader to focus them. The team is comprised of young men who are being taught to play fair, and, most importantly, that the results on the basketball court aren’t the end all, be all of their existence; but still, no one likes to lose, especially on a regular basis. The team has its cheerleaders and its chaplain, Father Mark (Jeremy Radin), but it’s lacking the guidance of a strong leader in order to take the first step back toward what it once was.
Cunningham’s life after high school hasn’t been the stuff dreams are made of. He works construction to support himself, is a heavy drinker, and lives alone, estranged from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), and isolated from family, like his sister Beth (Michela Watkins). The film will impart to the viewer, the reasons for Cunningham’s behavior.
As the film progresses, Cunningham receives a phone call from Father Divine (John Aylward), who is reaching out to Cunningham to see if he will take over as head coach. Cunningham is reluctant to take on that sort of responsibility, and attempts to come up with valid reasons as to why he’s not the right person for the job, but is unable to come up with something substantial. Cunningham shows up to a practice and in no time, he sets about the task of teaching the team the fundamentals that they’re lacking, as well as strengthening the players’ mental attitude toward the game. His methods weren’t exactly what the school bargained for, as Jack’s temper gets out of hand during games, and his language doesn’t make him the ideal role model for impressionable youth. Over time, the team takes to Jack’s teaching of the fundamentals and he, in turn, begins to open up and share with his players his experiences.
Cunningham’s ultimate goal, in regard to the team, is to coach the team to enough victories in order to earn the team a spot in the playoffs. If the team is successful, it will be the first time a Bishop Hayes High School team has been in the post season since Cunningham’s playing days.
“The Way Back” was released internationally on March 5, 2020. The film was directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) and written for the screen by Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night). Comprised of the genres of drama and sport, the movie has a runtime of 108 minutes. The score by Rob Simonsen hits all the right chords and matches up well with what is being shown to the viewer on screen.
Those viewers expecting to see a film, where the basketball and the team’s quest to make the playoffs is the central focus of the movie, will be disappointed. While basketball is certainly shown throughout the film, it’s not the central focus of the movie. Instead, Cunningham’s problems and his journey toward possibly coming to terms with his inner conflict is at the center of the film. The film doesn’t reinvent the sports drama, it’s a bit formulaic to be sure, especially to someone like myself, who has watched many sports dramas, but I still found it entertaining.