You don’t have to see The Way Back to guess what happens in The Way Back. In the film, set in San Pedro, California, Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a drunk who used to be a promising high school basketball star. Once, he was on top of the world, with a full ride to a college powerhouse, his bright future all laid out in front of him. Now, he’s a middle-aged drunk working in construction — a nobody. But then he gets his shot at redemption: He’s asked to coach his old high school team, who are far removed from past glory. Nobody believes in this team, or Jack, but this scrappy gang of underdogs will show ’em all.
Basically what you imagined, right? Just by watching the commercials — hell, just by looking at the poster — you probably predicted what The Way Back was about. But more importantly, you probably know what’s going to happen because of who’s starring in the film. In the last few years, Affleck has gone through a rough patch personally, including a divorce, rehab, relapse and a ghastly cry-for-help back tattoo. (And then there’s the actor’s post-Weinstein acknowledgement that he inappropriately groped One Tree Hill star Hilarie Burton in 2003.) A two-time Oscar-winner, Affleck is desperately in need of image rehabilitation. And one of the best ways to do that — at least on the big screen — is to star in an inspirational sports drama like The Way Back.
Not every A-lister who signs up for one of these films has experienced the very public lows that Affleck has, but a sports movie can be a surefire way to make viewers see you in a new, more favorable light. No matter how clichéd the film is, the strategy works like a charm. Actually, I’d argue that the predictability is part of the point: Deep down, we want these very famous men to get their happy ending. We’re suckers for the conventions of the sports movie.
Invariably, the fallen actor is playing a down-on-his-luck coach or over-the-hill athlete. In 1984, Robert Redford was hardly a has-been — he had won an Oscar for directing 1980’s Ordinary People — but he was deep into his 40s and hadn’t starred in a film for four years before signing up to be Roy Hobbs, the past-his-prime ballplayer in The Natural. At the time of 2006’s We Are Marshall, Matthew McConaughey was in the midst of his shirtless nadir of dumb romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch when he portrayed real-life football coach Jack Lengyel, who had to help Marshall University heal after a tragic 1970 plane crash took the lives of many of the team’s players and coaches. Kurt Russell was well past his commercial peak when he played Herb Brooks, the crusty coach of the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, taking on the seemingly invincible Soviet squad, in 2004’s Miracle.
And, of course, there’s Kevin Costner, a sports-movie veteran, who tried to overcome the commercial and critical drubbing of his epic 1990s misfires Waterworld and The Postman by starring in 1999’s For Love of the Game, in which his retiring pitcher Billy Chapel tries for one last career highlight by throwing a perfect game.
Affleck fits right in with this lot because, like those other characters, Jack has been laid low by life. Jack needs this second chance just as much as Affleck does, and we in the audience understand that — we’re meant to have equal amounts of sympathy for both men. And by playing these hard-luck, aging characters, the actors are doing a form of contrition, lowering themselves so that they seem humbled by life. Like Jack, Affleck must own up to past mistakes, which he’s tried to do through the media. “The benefits, to me, far outweighed the risks,” Affleck said recently in a New York Times profile about deciding to play this alcoholic has-been. “I found it very therapeutic.”
This is the way showbiz rebranding works. It’s a bitter Hollywood truth that, when actresses want to show humility and seriousness, they take roles that deemphasize their beauty — like Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn in Monster — so that they look like us miserable slobs. But for male actors, playing a beaten-down athlete or coach will do the trick. For a lot of guys, the specter of fading sports greatness is a poignant image — a reminder of our shared mortality and inevitable declining manhood. Playing a washed-up drunk like Jack is as close as handsome male movie stars get to being like the rest of us.
But these films also work because, on some molecular level, many fans of sports movies (and sports) hold onto this idea that there’s an enduring nobility to sports. Watch any amount of Olympics coverage or Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, and you’ll run into this air of awed, majestic grandeur. Apparently, people aren’t just playing a kids’ game — they’re representing all that is Significant and Just about our society. The puffed-up, misguided importance given to sports is understandable. Games have rules that are always followed — games have self-evident winners and losers. Life may be messy and unfair, but in sports there’s no moral grey area, which makes us long for their simplicity.
No wonder people get so angry when the New England Patriots or Houston Astros are caught cheating — or when an abuser like Aroldis Chapman ends up winning a World Series ring. We want to believe that sports is a heightened arena of dignity and righteousness, no matter how many times reality undercuts that delusion.
How else to explain the misty-eyed tone of so many sports dramas? Whether it’s The Way Back, Miracle or The Natural, the main character isn’t just playing to win — he’s trying to set the world right. And in sports as in sports movies, there’s a notion that victory will confer upon the victor an absolution for his past sins. If Jack helps this woeful team win the championship, maybe he’s not such a hopeless wretch after all. Roy Hobbs has lots of regrets, but if he can hit a home run in a big spot, maybe his life wasn’t in vain. If Billy Chapel tosses that perfect game, maybe you’ll decide you still like Kevin Costner.
At the end of a long sports season, the team that wins the trophy is automatically venerated — the hard work and the sacrifice and the stumbles along the way were all necessary to get to that point. The way journalists and broadcasters treat winners, it’s almost as if they’re bestowed with moral superiority — as if winning vindicated the content of their character. And so, when we watch The Way Back, we’re pulling for Jack/Affleck because we’re hoping that he’s found worthy. After all, isn’t that what we’ve learned winning is all about?
But it’s not just the coach/player on the screen that we’re cheering for. In some sense, we’re also rooting for ourselves. Any adult who still follows his favorite childhood team should understand this. We’ve long ago lost our association with the players of our youth, who have retired, and yet we still cling to our connection to the team. Why? Because we see that team as representing us — they’re our proxy in the world of athletic competition, which we’re not skilled enough to play ourselves. And yet we treat the outcomes on the field as indicative of our own character.
One of the most profound ways in which our teams represent us is through symbolizing certain narratives that we tell ourselves. Perhaps the most popular is the idea that we’re an underdog who’s been disrespected and not taken seriously. Even if you’re the Patriots, who have won a kajillion Super Bowls, your fan base will still feel like it’s been gravely insulted if you’re not the favorite every year. We nurse these slights because we love telling ourselves that nobody believes in us — oh, but all those haters will see.
That’s why so many inspirational sports dramas are about underdog teams — we’re invited to live vicariously through their plight of going up against big, scary Goliath. Hoosiers and Miracle are perhaps the best examples of this, each of them about teams facing long odds that end up shocking the world. The Way Back isn’t to those films’ level — the director, Gavin O’Connor, also helmed Miracle — but it borrows liberally from their plots to create similar emotional responses. Sure, Jack’s team may be filled with untalented pipsqueaks, but they’ve got moxie and grit — just like Jack! They may not be the best but, by god, they’ll work harder than their opponents — and, maybe just maybe, that’ll be enough to carry the team to victory. We get invested because we want to think the same could be true of us.
Upsets happen all the time in real-life sports, but not nearly as often as in the movies, which like to sell us on fantasies like “good conquers evil” and “love can overcome any obstacle.” Right alongside those is the belief that, no matter how much more accomplished someone else is, our stick-to-itiveness and desire can make us winners. Everyone knows that’s not true — we all face certain disadvantages that are insurmountable, no matter how gritty we are — but we turn to sports movies to flatter our hope that it is.
You may have decided that Ben Affleck has had more than his share of comebacks and second chances, but you might end up pulling for Jack anyway because, ultimately, you’re not really rooting for him or his team in The Way Back. You’re rooting for the sports-movie formula, and if you and Affleck just happen to be on the same squad, well, let’s work together to win the big game. Your life and Affleck’s are nothing alike, but you both know how it feels to be underestimated — you both want to believe there’s something great inside you waiting to emerge.
Yeah, I know, that’s super-corny — but if you find yourself getting swept up by The Way Back despite yourself, don’t pretend that you don’t know the reasons why.