The Oscar race can sometimes leave the best performances and films behind. That’s because the Oscar race is less about “Miss Right” than it is about “Miss Right Now,” (credit Robin Williams, R.I.P.). One of those is definitely Ben Affleck in The Way Back. The film was dropped into the COVID time warp and never really had its moment. What that would have meant in real time was seeing Affleck on the red carpet, doing guest appearances on talk shows, raising the publicity profile — probably fairly decent box office, being that it’s a heartwarming sports movie that would have generated good word of mouth. But none of that happened. So now we’re left with a film that dropped into streaming never to be seen or heard by many who might most appreciate it.
But here’s the thing — Ben Affleck delivers his career best performance in this film. No doubt much of it has to do with his own real life public struggles with addiction, as a way to work through that with his audience. In a way, this is also what is happening with Chadwick Boseman’s performance in Ma Rainey; it is impossible to separate the man, the work and his untimely death. We didn’t witness Boseman’s battle with cancer — but we come to his final crowning performance with that knowledge. So too do we come to Affleck’s work in this film with the knowledge of his battle with alcoholism, which he has been reluctantly public about.
It isn’t just Affleck’s real life infusing his work that makes it a great performance. It is how far and how deep he goes as a basketball coach whose son died of cancer as he trains and motivates his hometown team to the championships. It’s worth noting if we’re serious about giving out nominations and statues for the best work of the year and as such, his deserves to be considered more than it has been. That’s not to say I think he WILL earn a slot in the top five but it is odd that — thus far — it is being completely ignored.
I will come clean to say I didn’t watch it until yesterday. I had to be pushed to watching it. I knew nothing about it because I never read reviews and it had zero buzz for months now. I didn’t even know what it was about. The title reminded me of the Peter Weir movie from a few years ago. I do not know if it will gain traction or not. What I do know is that I have to recommend it to people — not just because it’s a good movie but because of Affleck’s performance, which is remarkable.
Affleck plays a guy whose own basketball career fizzled out but who gets a second chance coaching a team that could use his help. Does this movie contain many of the usual sports movie tropes? It absolutely does. But that is what’s great about it. How many movies this year are total drags? A lot of them are. Watching one that isn’t a total drag is a gift. So bring on the sports tropes. Let’s have all of them.
Of course, this is a bittersweet movie with no easy answers particularly. It is about viewing addiction or life’s failures in the same way everyone must when it comes to playing as part of a team. Are you playing to win only? Or are you playing to bring your best self and give it everything you have and do it honestly, win or lose? That’s life, my friends. That is success too. There are not absolute winners because the getting there matters so much more.
What to do with an under the radar film and performance by a prominent star like Ben Affleck? I do not know. The only thing I do know is that for him it’s the role of a lifetime and it brings out the best in him. If you get a chance, find it on streaming and watch it. It certainly delivers that cathartic narrative so many of us seek when we go out looking for stories that stick.