Thursday, September 9, 2021

This Isn't How We Play the Game: School Sports Month Continues!

The Way Back

The Way Back came out at a very interesting time. Note the date on the poster pictured here. “March 6 Only in theaters.” And yes, that was in 2020. This film opened just shortly before most movie theaters in the United States closed, so it's probably the movie a lot of people saw on their most recent trip to a movie theater.

The night before the full lockdown in Washington State, we went to Rodeo Drive-in in Bremerton. The Way Back was one of our options, but instead, we watched Pixar’s Onward

I did see this film in 2020, on DVD, and last week I checked it out of the library to watch it again.

The Way Back must have been a very personal film for Ben Affleck, though his only hat was that of star. Brad Ingelsby wrote the screenplay and Gavin O’Connor directed, but the story of an alcoholic forced to deal with his problem reflects the actor/writer/director’s public battle with the bottle.

The film is the story of Jack Cunningham, an ironworker who was a high school basketball star. When the basketball coach at Bishop Hayes Roman Catholic High School has a heart attack, the school’s principal, Father Edward Divine (John Aylward), calls Jack and asks him to coach the team. He leaves a message on Jack’s machine (leaving a phone number that doesn’t include "555" and closing his message with, “God bless.”) Jack hesitates but eventually agrees.

Jack's not alone when he works with the team. A math teacher (Al Madrigal as Dan) serves as assistant coach and Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin) is the Team Chaplain. When the chaplain asks Jack how he feels about taking on the job, Jack tells the chaplain, “F***, I’m as nervous as s***.” 

Whelan is quite obviously taken aback.

Jack goes into Gene-Hackman-in-Hoosiers mode and turns a last-place team into a real competitor. He does the old “cutting the cocky star player from the team when he doesn’t follow the rules” routine and works the kids hard, but he also swears like a, well, ironworker. During a game when the team gets sloppy, Cunningham yells at them to “Reach into their shorts to see if they have a pair. Because you’re playing like a bunch of pu****s!” accompanied by a number of F-Bombs.

Chaplain Whelan watches this display aghast. On the bus ride after the game, the chaplain tries to have a heart-to-heart with the coach. Chaplain says, “Jack, I just wanted to have a little chat with you about something that is on my mind. I don’t know if you recall from your days as a student that we have a Code of Conduct at Hayes, and part of that code of conduct includes the use of appropriate language. I know you’re trying to motivate the team but I wonder if there isn’t a different way.”

“So you’d like me to be more Christlike from the bench?” Jack responds.

“Our job isn’t just to win basketball games but also to develop men of integrity and faith. I’d like you to give it some thought,” the priest answers.

Jack tells the priest that there are so many problems in the world he has a hard time believing God cares about the language they use. The priest tells him that as Christians we integrate faith into our lives, so yes, He cares.

Now I understand that in the real world coaches often do use colorful language. My brother had quite the stories about his basketball coach at dear old Piner High. But using F-bombs to insult the officials isn’t going to go over well in any league or level of play. And a religious school should hold its staff to a higher level. If anything, I thought the priest was a bit wimpy in holding Jack accountable. Jack is a lot tougher in holding his players accountable.

But, of course, Jack does have a bigger problem than swearing. He’s still drinking.

It seems quite odd that the rival coaches are aware of Jack’s drinking problem but the priests who hired him weren't. A rival coach mocks Jack for hanging out at the bars. It does seem the school should have done a bit of research and reference checks.

When his assistant coach tells Jack that he found empty beer cans in the coach’s office, Jack first snaps at him for snooping in his office and then comes up with a lame excuse for the cans. But Jack drinks more as the season schedule becomes tougher and family pressures rise. After winning the big game that secures a spot in the playoffs, Jack comes into practice drunk.

Father Divine goes to Jack with the assistant coach and fires Jack. The priest says, “Our decision is final, we have a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol.” 

Jack snarls back at the priest and the assistant coach. Jack goes on another bender and winds up with a DUI in jail. But the team plays on.

The chaplain prays with the team before they play their first playoff game (the first time Bishop Hayes goes to the playoffs since Jack was a player). He prays not for victory, but for the boys to play their best. Before they go out, the team captain drops an F-bomb.

In my job, I work with men in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, so I appreciate employers giving such men a chance. The priests of the school were irresponsible in hiring Jack, but when they recognize their mistake, they deal with it. That’s why  I give Fathers Divine and Whelan a three of four steeple rating.

And on another note, something outside of the film: I read recently that though he previously described himself as an agnostic, Affleck has been attending a Methodist Church with his family. He said, “Faith has served me well in my recovery as an alcoholic.” We at Movie Churches wish Mr. Affleck ongoing success in his recovery.

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