In The Way Back, Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic smoker, and former drug addict who, as we eventually find out, was trying to numb the pain of losing his son to cancer. Did I just spoil the whole movie? Not really. This is an important film to watch, particularly in our jaded modern culture that believes that the Catholic Church is a repressive, hypocritical regime that is incapable of accepting anybody with any kind of color in their background. I say this because Jack’s path to redemption is found by coaching the boy’s basketball team for Bishop Hayes High School, his alma mater where he was a star.
One of the things that struck me while watching The Way Back was the way that the audience chuckled at the scenes where Jack was cursing a blue streak in front of the team’s chaplain (Father Mark Whelan, played by Jeremy Radin) during games. The movie played this for laughs, and it needed some levity as this is a very sad film in general. Still (and this is admittedly a product of my studies and experiences) I could not help but feel the others watching this film were chuckling because they feel like it was taking the clergy down a peg. I am here to tell anyone else that may believe that priests are necessarily shocked by such language that you have not hung out with too many priests. Yet there is a crucial scene between Jack and Father Whelan (who, nonetheless, is not thrilled by using curse words in front of the team) where Jack is blabbing on about how if there truly was a God He would not care about what people say or how they say it. Father replies with a short reminder that as Christians, we are called to live our faith. That was it. No big pronunciamentos. No dialogs on the nature of God. It was a simple call to live by a code. Now, to be clear, Jack does not have a spiritual awakening filled with scenes of him praying or going to Mass. However, it was that short exchange that began a process of change in Jack that, while he still did not choose his words wisely, led to him quitting drinking (at least for a time). It made him realize that he had to do better for the kids that he was charged with mentoring.
Jack’s problem, though, was that he still had not dealt with the issues that drove him away from basketball and towards the bottle and drugs. It was all well and good that he had given up liquor when he did, and that his team was doing well. All the success, though, were surface accomplishments and he had yet to face the real demons that remained. This was all brought to a head in when he and his ex-wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), went to the hospital to visit a married couple they were friends with and whose child was in the hospital. This came at a point in The Way Back just when you think everything was finally going Jack’s way. He had been sober for a long time and the team had just made it to the playoffs in dramatic fashion. In fact, I was tricked by the film because there was a freeze-frame of Jack walking off the court in victory, and I even wrote “happy ending” in my notes believing the credits were about to roll. I was wrong, of course. At first I thought the movie had gone off the rails because I felt everything had been tied up in a neat bow. Plus, I just want to see people succeed, particularly on celluloid. On the contrary, Jack seeing his friend’s son on the hospital bed and their family receiving bad news triggered a relapse for him that saw him fired from being the coach, going back to drinking, crashing his car while driving intoxicated, stumbling into the wrong house, and ending up unconscious in the middle of the street. It is this string of events that convinces him that he finally needs to rehabilitate himself and confront his past.
The Way Back is a Catholic movie, but not in a spiritual sort of way, and I think that is of vital importance. The Catholic Church is not necessarily the vehicle of change for Jack, but neither is it portrayed as an adversarial institution that is an impediment to him receiving healing. That is okay too. I would have loved for Jack to have a spiritual resurrection, and in some respects he did. Catholicism, truly, is not a one-size-fits-all approach to life. God does desire a relationship with all of us. But He also wants us to be better people in general. Father Edward Devine (John Aylward), the school’s president, saw this after Jack relapsed and knew that Jack could not be the model the teens needed, nor help himself by continuing his coaching duties. The older priest does not tell Jack to go to Confession or Mass on a regular basis. Instead, he tells Jack to get his life sorted out. Thus, Catholicism is more the cultural side of things rather than anything being deeply spiritual. Again, I want Jack to rely a bit more on God for his healing for God gives meaning to suffering in so many ways, Christ being the prime example. But I will take rehabilitation as well.
The point I am trying to make here with The Way Back is that redemption does not always go the way we expect, and this is something I had to learn in my own faith life. At any rate, it is a good story, and good story equals good cinema, most of the time. Add in the fact that you had old school church gyms (which I love!), priests acting like the pretty normal people they are, crosses on the back of the Bishop Hayes’ jerseys, and other outward signs of Catholicism, and you had a pretty enjoyable (though deeply sad, at times) movie experience for this reviewer.