THE STORY – Sonny Vaccaro and Nike pursue basketball rookie Michael Jordan, creating a partnership that revolutionizes the world of sports and contemporary culture.
THE CAST – Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker & Viola Davis
THE TEAM – Ben Affleck (Director) & Alex Convery (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 112 Minutes
There’s something bleak and indicative of late-stage capitalism that we’ve gone past making movies designed to persuade you to buy products to literally making movies about the products themselves. Want a Hot Cheetos movie? Eva Longoria’s got you with “Flamin’ Hot.” How about a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the development of Tetris? Go see Taron Egerton’s latest film, “Tetris.” Want to know about BlackBerry? Go see “BlackBerry.” And now, we’ve got a movie about the creation of Air Jordans and a business deal that changed the face of the sports and sneaker industries. Does it feel like we’re entering an even more creatively bankrupt stage of storytelling? Maybe. And indeed, does “Air” offer much in the way of creative storytelling? Not really. Ben Affleck’s filmmaking here is far more by the book than in something like his Oscar Best Picture-winning “Argo,” but that shouldn’t negate just how much of an entertaining and well-constructed film “Air” ultimately is.
Affleck’s latest film is essentially a series of indoor meetings captured in straightforward shot-reverse shot coverage. The story is predictable as there’s likely not a soul alive who doesn’t know Michael Jordan has become the most famous basketball player in history and that Nike became one of the biggest brands in the world as a result of his historic, unprecedented signing. And with that knowledge comes an absence of suspense and a sort of wink-wink self-assuredness throughout because the film knows the audience understands how this story ends. It’s an underdog story that doesn’t attempt to ask the viewer to pretend even for a second that its characters will remain underdogs for long. This is no edge-of-your-seat type thriller like “Gone Baby Gone” or “The Town.” This is a cast of charismatic actors rattling off intelligent dialogue for two hours as they approach an inevitable conclusion. And yet, “Air” manages to be effortlessly irresistible. Like Ben Affleck, it’s something that challenges the viewer to refrain from rooting for it, flaws and all. Strip away the overt corporate branding, and it’s the kind of movie that used to be Hollywood’s bread and butter and now feels increasingly like a rarity in today’s cinematic landscape. It doesn’t have any grand social themes of importance, looking to make a change in today’s world. It’s a simple, competently told, feel-good drama that will likely appeal to your dad, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In a way, “Air” feels like a less overtly comedic “Ted Lasso” in how disarmingly earnest it presents itself. The film uses cutaways to Nike Founder Phil Knight’s (Ben Affleck) “10 steps for success” chart as a sort of framing device throughout to give the film its inspirational pull. These steps are primarily platitudes, but the film doesn’t mock them. Instead, these are guidelines, however corny, that guide people to find greatness. It’s all just very likable and digestible. A story about a group of friendly people trying to find success (and, more importantly, purpose) in an unpredictable business world; it would be a stretch to say the film even really has an antagonist, though Chris Messina’s hilarious curse word-spewing turn as sports agent David Falk who represented Michael Jordan and his family’s best interests comes the closest.
Fortunately, Affleck manages to keep the film from veering off into the insufferably saccharine territory. He keeps things grounded enough to be endearing without becoming an eye-rolling meaningless movie about a bunch of guys who got rich from another man’s talent. This is Affleck’s funniest film to date, and credit for that is owed to Affleck for getting terrific performances out of his cast, but most of the praise should go towards Alex Convery’s witty screenplay. At times, the editing speeds up, and we start getting whip-pans and smash cuts; things could start feeling awfully reminiscent of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” which can be insufferable if not done right. Affleck wisely dials this style back and mostly lets the amusing dialogue and cast breathe without burying them in distracting filmmaking.
Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, the one Nike employee who sees what no one else can see in Michael Jordan and is willing to risk his career and the whole Nike corporation by signing him with their entire allocated budget for the year despite Michael’s preference for Addidas or Converse. Damon convincingly plays a tired, pudgy, middle-aged man but then reminds us that he has that genuine movie star charisma when he uses it to sell the hell out of an emotional monologue towards the end of the film. While we never see Michael Jordan’s face on camera (something that could’ve been distracting, but Affleck skillfully edits and shoots around it), much of the film’s emotional complexity is given to Viola Davis as his mother, Deloris Jordan with her real-life husband Julius Tennon playing Michael’s father. While Davis may not show us anything she has never done before, she’s still a fundamental reason why “Air” works as she brings the emotional weight of a mother who believes in her son and is searching for the one person who will see what she see’s; that he’s not just another great basketball player but an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime talent. Chris Tucker (playing Howard White) and Jason Bateman (playing Rob Strasser) round out the cast; each providing laughs every time they’re on screen, adding to the film’s charm and broad appeal. In front of the camera, Affleck gets bonus points for being willing to poke fun at himself, dressing up in pink spandex, sporting a bad haircut, and embracing Nike Founder Phil Knight’s goofy new-age spiritualism and cliched aphorisms. Everyone is consistently funny. Even as the film’s narrative and storytelling beats remain predictable, the dialogue and performances are fun enough to keep you invested. There are even some laugh-out-loud moments, such as Chris Messina’s tirade against Matt Damon after Sonny goes outside the rules and visits the Jordans’ home unannounced, outdoing Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman when it comes to yelling on the phone.
At the same time, there are still some cliche moments, as Affleck throws in some unsubtle symbolism. How do we know Sonny is willing to take big risks? Let’s introduce him at a craps table in Vegas! How will we foreshadow that Sonny needs to follow his gut and not stick to the script? Have George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) spout an impromptu story about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I dreamed a dream” speech. Particularly grating, the film sometimes can’t help but indulge in self-aware moments that evoke a scene in “Bohemian Rhapsody” where Mike Meyers’ character is like, “BAH! As if anyone would ever listen to a song called Bohemian Rhapsody.” At the same time, Affleck seems aware that these moments could become cringe if overused and wisely undercuts them. In particular, the moment Sonny tells his friend Phil that the shoe will be called “Air Jordan,” it’s undercut by a running gag about whether David Falk has already come up with that name (Matthew Maher as Nike shoe designer played by character actor Peter Moore is eventually given credit).
Affleck touches on some interesting, darker elements here and there about capitalism and greed, with his opening montage of 80s consumerism and a sequence in a Bodega that provides close-ups of each and every one of the brands on sale in the story. Viola Davis also touches on this in a monologue discussing the unwitting overlap of greed and social change. But the film is unwilling to dig further into these themes. Instead, it is mainly content to avoid rocking the boat narratively or thematically. It just wants to be fun and easygoing. Affleck and his “Live By Night” cinematographer Robert Richardson give the proceedings a grainy 80s aesthetic, but the filmmaking is largely restrained otherwise. Even the editing, which one would expect to be rapid in a movie like this, slows itself down as the film progresses. Again, although this isn’t bold filmmaking, it keeps “Air” from becoming irksome and makes it wholesome. The 80s hit soundtrack and the occasional Tangerine Dream film score are effectively utilized and appropriate since, as others have said, this is content to be a dad movie.
There are better dad movies than this. There are better underdog stories than this. There are better sports films than this. There are better business dealing films than this. Nothing about “Air” is truly excellent. But almost everything about it works. It may not be remembered the same way “Argo,” “Good Will Hunting,” or even “The Town” are, but it is undoubtedly an amiable and entertaining way to spend two hours.