In The Way Back, after leading his team in a particularly profanity-filled game, Bishop Hayes Catholic high school basketball coach Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) gets a visit from chaplain Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin). Citing the school’s Code of Conduct, Whelan urges Jack to curb his language. Jack responds with a smirking rejoinder: “So you want me to be more Christ-like?”
Jack’s comment makes his priorities clear. Bishop Hayes has been on a decades-long losing streak. The administration sought help from Jack, a phenom who won championships for the school as a player. He’s been given a team who doesn’t take the game seriously, and he can’t change their thinking if he has to worry about their weak sensibilities.
Jack’s attitude mirrors that of almost every sports-movie coach. Whether it’s Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) of Hoosiers, Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) of The Mighty Ducks, or Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) of Remember the Titans, sports films love tough men who force a team of losers to man up, work hard, and outplay their more talented rivals. Each of these coaches preaches a gospel of winning, of defeating your opponent by wanting it more.
Initially, Jack seems to be following in the steps of these cinematic coaches. The Way Back begins with Jack nearing rock bottom. His basketball glory days far behind him, Jack’s life has fallen apart after the death of his young son. Plagued by alcoholism, Jack’s anger leads to separation from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) and near estrangement from his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins). When a former teacher offers him the coaching job, Jack finds himself tasked with whipping into shape a group of misfits, including overconfident showboat Marcus (Melvin Gregg) and the talented but timid Brandon (Brandon Wilson).
Most sports films would follow the obvious trajectory set forth by that premise. Jack would discover the kids need him. He would be tough on them to break down their defenses and get them to think like a team. He would recover his pride as the team begins to believe in itself. And finally, against all odds, the team would defeat more talented opponents to be recognized as the best around.
But The Way Back, written by Brad Ingelsby and director Gavin O’Connor, eschews traditional sports movie narrative beats and instead focuses on the struggles of a broken man. Affleck turns in a remarkable performance as a functional alcoholic, a man who smiles a bit too big and jokes a bit too quickly. A man who can’t quite disguise the anger inside of him.
O’Connor and cinematographer Eduard Grau shoot the movie with handheld cameras and use a muted color palette. Gone are the hero shots that portray athletic feats in awe-inspiring glory; in their place are intimate moments that Jack and his players would rather leave unseen. O’Connor often skips over games entirely, cutting from pre-game warm-ups to the team’s ride home, letting title cards tell viewers the final score. Instead of the on-court action, the camera finds Jack twisting his grimace into a smile to placate assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), who takes a breath before asking Jack about the empty beer cans in his office.
The Way Back eschews traditional sports movie narrative beats and instead focuses on the struggles of a broken man.
These storytelling choices make The Way Back less a story about redemption through excellence and more a portrait of failure. Jack’s problems don’t go away when his team starts winning and his coaching style doesn’t fix the kids’ personal problems. They still lead messy lives, no matter how clean their on-court moves may be.
Whether he knows it or not, Jack’s behavior is Christ-like. That might seem surprising, if not blasphemous. Some Christians only imagine Jesus as a manly warrior, an overcomer who defeats his enemies in battle, who shrugs off the temptations that come his way. Their Jesus wouldn’t shirk from a basketball game. He would go hard in the paint and dunk in the devil’s face.
But Isaiah 53, one of the first and most important descriptions of Christ, paints a very different picture. The poet writes that Christ “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He was “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” Isaiah describes not a masculine conqueror, who overcomes obstacles, but someone who loses, someone who’s broken.
According to Murdoch University professor William Loader, Christ contradicted the masculine ideas about God that dominated the ancient world. “Greek sculpture, Roman macho ideals and oriental images contributed to an image of God who behaved just like such men,” writes Loader. “He was concerned primarily with power and control and, at best, fatherly benevolence.” On the contrary, “Jesus of Nazareth . . . challenged such masculine models.” Loader argues that Jesus’ teaching presented not only “an exception to the masculine ideal,” but also an exception to the way people thought about God. Christ shows us a God who suffers with humanity, not a God who beats all opponents.
It’s hard not to prioritize winning in a sports movie, but The Way Back pulls it off—perhaps most effectively in a seemingly minor expository scene. As Jack drives Brandon home from a game, the player asks why his coach never played college ball or went pro. In simple, plaintive terms, Jack explains that his abusive father cared only about basketball. The better Jack played, the more attention he received from his dad. But when he realized that the attention was not love, Jack quit, never to touch a basketball again. As director, O’Connor doesn’t overplay the scene, but lets the actors sit silently for a moment, taking it all in.
When Jack tells Brandon this story, he’s not imparting words of wisdom and he certainly isn’t devising a new basketball play. He’s simply sharing his suffering and inviting his mentee to do the same. A Christ-like practice, indeed.