I write this review during the Hebrew month of Elul, which occurs before Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. The theme of the season is repentance. This involves feeling contrite about the sins one has done in the previous year, resolving not to commit the errors of the past in the new year, and confessing to anyone you have injured in any way, either emotionally or financially. The Way Back is the story of Jack Cunningham, a man who has made many bad decisions in his life and who ultimately finds a way to redeem himself through making positive life-changing decisions going forward.
In high school, Jack Cunningham was a celebrated basketball star, setting scoring records at Bishop Hayes High School, a parochial Catholic institution. Inexplicably, he walked away from opportunities to play on college teams, which recruited him and offered him full scholarships. Instead, he became a construction worker without life goals, laboring just to make a living.
After Jack marries, he experiences a major family tragedy and is unable to recover from it. He separates from his wife Angela and resorts to alcohol to deal with life. Soon he becomes addicted to it. His family is concerned about his drinking problem and isolation from family and friends.
Serendipitously, he receives a call from Father Divine, the head of Jack’s alma mater, requesting him to take over the coaching position of the boys’ basketball team. The Father explains that the present coach suffered a heart attack and cannot complete the season. Jack reluctantly accepts the job.
Jack’s inaugural games are rough. The team has not been in the playoffs since Jack was a student and has only won one game this season. Slowly, he warms to the job and connects with the players, all the while trying to stay sober and refrain from cursing the players and the referees. Indeed, there is an overwhelming use of profanity in the film.
Game by game, the team improves and players come to respect their new coach. With each success, Jack’s alcoholism decreases, but it is a constant battle. Whether Jack possesses the will to change his direction in life when he is daily challenged by alcohol and a host of emotional demons is the question the film raises. Can Jack, indeed, be a true penitent?
Rabbi Mordechai Rottman writes about the steps one needs to take to become a true penitent: “The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change. Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to return. Return to God. Return to our pure self.”
There are four steps to repentance in Jewish tradition. We first have to regret what we have done wrong. Then we have to “leave the negativity behind,” as Rabbi Rottman expresses it. This means staying far away from those things that led to the negative behavior. Jack is especially challenged by his temptation to revisit his old haunts in times of emotional crisis.
Next, we need to verbalize the transgression and seek forgiveness from the person we may have wronged. Saying it makes it more real in the mind of the penitent. When Jack has a heart to heart, face-to-face conversation with Angela, Jack reveals a sensitivity and honest desire to turn over a new leaf.
The final step is to resolve not to repeat the negative behavior in the future. The closing scenes of The Way Back imply that Jack is beginning to chart a new path in life.
The Way Back on the surface may be a sports film that deals with a coach motivating his mediocre basketball team, but the real story is about a man who comes to terms with the consequences of making lots of bad decisions. Ultimately, he realizes that redemption will only come about by courageously resolving to make a mid-course correction in his own life.