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And the Oscar for Best Technical Consultant Goes to…'The Way Back'

April 30, 2020 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., lives and works at St. Monica parish in Santa Monica, where he teaches Campus Ministry. He's also a former college athlete, a varsity swimmer, at the University of Notre Dame. He brings all those things to bear to look at the Catholic and sports elements in the recent film The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck.

The film is currently available for digital streaming, and comes to Blu-Ray on May 16. Click here to learn more.

I recommend this film, especially for sports families, with the caveat that the protagonist uses a large amount of foul language. My colleague Kate O’Hare addresses this here, in a post for her blog, Pax Culturati.

As a technical consultant who lands one or two mainstream film and TV gigs per year, the truncated movie season got me to ask if, indeed, we’ve seen the last movies released to theaters for a while, which among those already out was the most technically polished Catholic film of the year? And I mean “catholic” in every sense of the word, when the characters and setting take place in an overtly Catholic world.

In The Way Back, which had a shortened theatrical run in early March, Ben Affleck -- who's been sincere about his real-life struggles with alcoholism -- plays a fictionalized version of his addiction battle in the role of Jack Cunningham, a washed-up, hard-drinking, former Catholic schoolboy basketball hero from blue-collar San Pedro, California, next to the Port of Los Angeles.

The principal of Bishop Hayes High, Father Edward Devine (John Aylward), asks Jack to take over as head basketball coach. Cunningham declines, but the good padre suggests he sleep on it overnight. When Jack eventually agrees, that’s all we see of the pastor, save one late scene where he administers discipline.

He otherwise defers to his associate, Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin), who better connects with the students and the middle-aged coach. The characterizations of the priests were fleshed out well, especially the pastor, who knows administration and can place gifts and talents of his staff where they’re best utilized.

Bishop Hayes High School, while fictitious, reminded me of St. Monica’s Catholic High School, the school connected to the parish where I live. Both schools are ethnically diverse and the students are good kids at their cores, just needing some direction and inspiration. Whereas a lot of recent high-school coming-of-age dramas go for darker themes, the filmmakers on The Way Back more realistically capture the Catholic high-school experience I’ve been privileged to minister in.

Catholic also means “universal,” so a good technical consultant will get everything right, even the nuances that are least overtly Catholic. After losing some initial games, Jack changes his strategy and outlines via chalkboard a full-court press. If the team is not the most talented, it will be the hardest-working and most well-conditioned in employing this stifling defensive scheme. When this scene occurred, I caught myself saying, “That’s exactly what I would do as coach.” Basketball fans will have basketball technical consultant Noah Ballou (who also plays the opposing coach), to thank.

And where altar-call scenes traditionally fall under the dominion of evangelical faith-based films, director Gavin O’Connor closes the film with an inspiring extemporaneous prayer led by Father Mark. May we look forward to our own way back to high school athletics, and never again take for granted the prayers that often precede community gathering sporting events:

“Heavenly Father, we welcome your presence here among us and your Spirit of love alive in the community of Bishop Hayes. Please help us to be the best we can be, to strive not so much to win, but to play fairly and well. We ask this in your name, Lord Jesus. Amen.”

Image: Warner Bros.

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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