His Secret Sorrows: Dissecting Alcoholism and Grief in ‘The Way Back’

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sometimes it calls to me, like a force of nature, impossible to ignore. I fight it, but it wins. Every ounce of progress I have made when it comes to maintaining sobriety is thrown down the proverbial drain, in an attempt to dampen the self-hatred and pain that has been with me longer than I can remember. Most people tend to address my struggle with, “Well, just stop drinking, you have nothing to be sad about,” which to be perfectly honest, is the biggest slap to the face to an alcoholic, as if we don’t want to be free of our demons. As writers, we foolishly idolize the messy as hell legends, from Kerouac to Bukowski to Burroughs. To create while being deep into oblivion is the natural order to some and, though I chose long ago to disregard debauchery in favour of the stillness of love and family, I have to be honest: I am, and will always be, an alcoholic. Not because I want to or even choose to, but because from the moment I had that first drink, it became a part of me, as much as I wish it had not. I am forever tormented by the illness and disease that is alcoholism. And it’s rare to see the pain and suffering that so many people like myself struggle with and endure as perfectly encapsulated as Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back. A film that shows the self-hatred that comes with alcoholism, the pain that comes with loss and grief, and the suffering that we tend to welcome into our existence as if we deserve it. 

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was something of a basketball hero in his high school days, lifted high as a man with a bright future. While those early days of high as the heavens potential seemed like they were destined to be realized, when we as viewers meet Jack, he’s nothing but a shell of what he was once. A man so deep in suffering and the abyss of loneliness and regret, Cunningham works a full-time job, comes home to nothing but a fridge of beer and drinks from the moment he arrives. A time bomb temper and a lifetime of personal let downs, Jack lives with the sad reality that following the loss of a child and a failed marriage, his only solace is the one thing that hasn’t left him (a lie that alcohol is so good at making us believe): booze. A security blanket to Jack, being able to drink and drink until the anger and rage temporarily cease to exist is all he has. As much as it causes those around him to look at the once-promising man with eyes that read disappointment and eggshells. Jack falls over, throws things across the room when his emotions are unchecked. He is such a failure to himself that he has simply given up on any notion that he will one day be okay. It’s all he knows, being lost in a can of beer or a bottle. We see a man completely and utterly defeated. As a longtime alcoholic, I saw myself in the film’s setup. 

As a childhood survivor of sexual abuse, the child of a drug-addicted mother and more recently, a father who has lost his daughter, the film felt like I was staring into a mirror. The moments in my life that I find myself eternally embarrassed to remember came back to me. Stumbling out of my seat after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, drunk as ever; drinking so much at a friend’s birthday party that I jumped into a pool, threw up in the pool and then accidentally vomited on the head of a nearby dog…the list goes on and on. I’ve been exactly where Jack is in the film, the lowest of lows and in between. There’s pain found within the character that speaks volumes on how miserable alcoholism can be to live with. 

As viewers, we can see the potential in Jack, the glimmer of hope that maybe given the right chance, he could pull himself together and not only be OK, but be himself again. If there’s anything that kills alcoholics the most, emotionally, it’s the realisation that we’re not who we used to be. At my darkest, I didn’t even recognise myself. If I were in the body of another person and met myself, I would want to kick the hell out that guy. Jack knows he’s a waste of flesh, but we see something there, so when he receives a phone call from his Alma Matter, asking him to coach the failing basketball team, we know this is his chance. We can see that Jack knows this is another chance as well, but for a short time, like so many of us, Jack declines the great opportunity, out of the shame of who he now is, the lack of self esteem and hope is front and centre. 

Eventually taking the job, Jack sees in front of him, a team without direction, a team without guidance. Like himself, he sees a group of boys who, for one reason or another, don’t believe in themselves. Failing to grasp that, Jack is hard on the team, unjustifiably tough, without realizing that the lack of direction in the team lines up perfectly with himself. 

Where The Way Back pulls the rug from under the audience’s expectations, though, is in how it sets itself up to be yet another underdog-does-good story, another sports film about a team coming back to defy the odds, but instead goes a very different direction. The film isn’t really about basketball, it’s not about underdogs, but about the journey to find something of a spark in yourself. So many times, those struggling with alcoholism find themselves just needing SOMETHING, a small sign that we’re still in the casings of what became our fractured selves. Jack gets that when he begins to see the team see something in themselves that he still cannot see in himself. A foul-mouthed man, angry at the world for taking his child, cursing the heavens by drinking himself into his own hell, Cunningham just wants to be gone, not in a suicidal way, but in a way that allows himself to turn off the pain, for even a brief moment in time. Part of Jack is there, ready to teach the team what it is to be a unit, to have each other’s backs and to believe in themselves. But it’s Jack that cannot see that, who cannot seem to stop and realise that HE is worth a shit. 

While most films like The Way Back eventually heads into a second-half that finds their struggling leads immediately seeing the light and coming out ahead, the wonderfully realistic part of this film is the reality that sometimes even the great things in front of us can be pulled away. Though Jack inspires the boys to be the best versions of themselves that they can be, the damage is eventually done to the point where he is removed from coaching the team, leaving Jack with the brutal truth that like so many other things, from a wonderful marriage to his reputation and so much more, he failed at holding himself together, long enough to beat it. That realization leads Jack to the profound moment where even the smallest act can lead to a brighter future, this moment being Jack deciding to finally get help. 

A lot of the press surrounding The Way Back seemed to focus on the parallels between the character of Jack and Ben Affleck’s own struggles with sobriety. Perhaps that’s why the actor chose the film: it’s a story of seeing how wrong you can be and finding the strength to acknowledge not only the damage done, but also the pain you hold so close to your heart. That the pain becomes more of you than YOU are. You become that pain and it consumes you, it eats at you, until you’re nothing but a sad human being. Perhaps The Way Back was Affleck’s way of coming to terms with his own struggles, while also telling a story that appeals to people who are struggling themselves. When I sat down to watch the film for the first time, with my wife, she asked me if I liked it. I replied that I needed time to process the film, but to be honest, I just couldn’t talk much after seeing what felt like myself on the screen. If anything, seeing a film that spoke to me with such intensity sparked the desire to see those things in myself that Jack sees. It’s impossibly difficult at times, being an alcoholic, the way I can be completely fine and then the next moment feel like I’m going to crumble without a drink sends me into a spiral that affects every aspect of my life, but to see myself in Jack and see the damage he has caused and how it eventually leads him to get help, hit me right in the heartstrings. It made me want to look into myself and address stuff I’ve dealt with. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a blast to be entertained. I can watch Coming to America or Robocop 24/7 and enjoy every moment. But sometimes there is something special about experiencing a film that not only entertains you, but inspires you to better yourself. Sometimes that pain just needs a nudge to be addressed. Oh, the power of cinema. 

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