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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ben Affleck provides the soul for ‘The Way Back’

Dan Webster

What with no new sports on television these days, I found myself this week watching international handball and disc league action. Hey, some of us sports fans are desperate.

At least I have choices when it comes to movies. Even to what my wife refers to as "cheesy" sports movies, such as the one that I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

Gavin O’Connor knows how to explore the trials and tribulations of the sports world. His 2004 film “Miracle,” which perennially ends up on best-sports-films-of-all-time lists, documents the improbable victory of the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team over the vaunted, and seemingly unbeatable, group of players fielded by the Soviet Union.

O’Connor is especially strong, though, when he melds sports with family strife. His 2011 film “Warrior” pits two brothers, played with requisite intensity by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, who end up facing off in a mixed-martial-arts cage fight. The fury of their relationship is fueled both by a sense of mutual betrayal and by the machinations of their now-sober father, played by Nick Nolte, who – well-meaning or not – wants to make up for his years of domestic abuse.

And now we have “The Way Back,” which has comparisons to both “Miracle” and “Warrior” – not to mention another film on that greatest-of-all-time list, David Anspaugh’s 1986 high-school basketball classic, “Hoosiers.”

For one thing, “The Way Back” tells the age-old tale of the underdog. Not only does that description fit a team, an underachieving squad of prep hoopsters that hasn’t posted a winning record in decades, but it applies also to the man – Jack Cunningham – whom the Catholic school’s rector invites to step in as coach. As played by a hulking, grizzled Ben Affleck, he’s a former star who’s spent the last few years drinking himself into a stupor.

Why the new coach is a drunk, a situation that has alienated him from those he loves – including his estranged wife – is only gradually revealed. But, spoiler alert, it has to do with cancer, and with a painful loss, all complicated by the lingering pain of a troubled father-and-son relationship that led not only to a family schism but also to our protagonist’s turning away from the sports at which he had once excelled.

And the reference to Anspaugh’s “Hoosiers”? That’s the most obvious similarity. Because of course Jack, along with resurrecting himself, must find a way to make a ragtag group of losers believe that they can not just compete but can actually defeat teams that traditionally trounce them by 40 points or more.

Among the players are the standard suspects: the talented kid who needs to learn a lesson in humility and discipline; the lover-boy whose various romantic entanglements not only come back to haunt him but are played largely for comic relief; and the dedicated athlete with father issues of his own who must learn how to find his voice as a team leader.

“The Way Back,” though, is as much about Coach Jack as it is about the team. And while the storyline – based on a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby – doesn’t really plow any original ground, it doesn’t simply duplicate the game plan formulated by “Miracle,” “Warrior” or “Hoosiers” – not all the way, at least. Ingelsby’s script finds a way to end things without the – for want of a better word – ultimate miracle finale.

Affleck deserves special mention for not just for pulling off a credible acting performance but for, given his own well-publicized struggles with alcohol, taking the role of Jack in the first place. An actor who began his career as a cocky guy who, buoyed by a screenwriting Oscar shared with pal Matt Damon when he was just 25, Affleck as he has aged has been an easy target for haters.

But he has tried to change his public persona over the years, tackling dramatic roles such as that of the late George Reeves in 2006’s “Hollywoodland” and in directing the Oscar-winning 2012 film “Argo.” His performance here may not change all opinions about him, but it should revise at least a few.

Which, if you think about it, is something of a miracle all by itself.