Jack (Ben Affleck) is a middle-aged man sleepwalking through his life, completely numb. Once a high school basketball phenom, he’s now working a shit job, drinking constantly, isolated from his family and friends, separated from his wife. His life is sad and stuck.
So I suppose Father Devine considers it a kindness to reach out with an opportunity. Jack’s alma matter is short of a basketball coach, and his glory days have not been forgotten (nor have they been repeated in the 25+ years since he left, but that’s another story). Jack tries out many refusals before grudgingly accepting, a win that is celebrated only briefly as the catholic school soon realizes that Jack is perhaps not an ideal role model, screaming and cursing his way through games.
Still, Jack seems to come out of his shell bit by bit, as his drills start paying off and his severely losing team becomes a moderately winning one. But alcoholism is a disease with deep roots, and Jack has more skeletons in his closet than we’d previously imagined.
The Way Back is a story about suffering. It’s not about redemption, but maybe just that very small first step, the most important one, the one that feels awful and aching and may or may not lead to success. The way back for alcoholics is much more complicated than most movies can show. Healing is not linear. It’s not pretty. It’s not easy. And getting sober is not a cure – not a cure for the suffering, and not a cure for the alcoholism either. Ben Affleck knows this better than most. He’s struggled with addiction himself. He’s been in and out of rehab more than once or twice. He’s seen it wreck relationships, including his marriage to Jennifer Garner. I don’t know Ben Affleck. I don’t know if he drank to ease the pain or if addiction was just in his genes. Many people who have alcoholism in the family will never succumb themselves. Some will suffer a catalyst, an event in their lives that leads to drinking. Many of us go through these hard times, but someone with a predilection for addiction won’t be able to start. I think for many celebrities, the lifestyle itself is a trigger. it can mean a lot of events, a lot of parties, and a lot of free drinks. People in the throes of addiction will do anything to feed it, including stealing from their dear sweet grandmothers or selling their own bodies. Celebrities don’t have to do this of course. Money is no object so they have no real obstacle to their using. In fact, they probably have many enablers, covering for their absences, making excuses, managing the bumps and bruises. It’s probably difficult for a celebrity to see their addiction because that’s usually done when “hitting bottom” but when you have millions of dollars and personal assistants, they form a very large cushion that keeps you from really going splat. Of course, when you have unending access to your drug of choice, you’re also at risk for a very sad death. We’ve seen those happen to many times, proving money can’t insulate you from everything.
So when you put someone like Ben Affleck in this role, you’re sending a message. Affleck carries a heaviness, a darkness within him. His anguish in this movie is real, and I can only hope it was some sort of exorcism for him. His performance has depth and authenticity, and though the story sometimes dips too far into sports movie cliche to be satisfying or worthy, Affleck more than makes up for it.