Air, director Ben Affleck’s look back at how a single sneaker was able to change sports and popular culture almost overnight, is a surprising crowd pleaser built around topics that aren’t usually this entertaining. Much like Moneyball or Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, Air is a look at the business behind sports rather than the games themselves. Affleck finds a sweet spot between those two particular examples by making a film that takes both big picture ideas and small details seriously, while offering up a good bit of believable humour and human drama. While the make-or-break tension of the story is palpable, Air remains a solidly crafted and easy going movie that does well by its subjects.
Frequent Affleck collaborator and BFF Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, the chief basketball talent scout for sneaker manufacturer Nike. It’s 1984, and Sonny has been trying for years to boost sales in his slumping division. His budgets are laughably low – with Nike more interested in their booming running shoe division than their meagre basketball sales, which are dwarfed by rivals Converse and Adidas – and they often only end up with low tier athletes willing to wear their sneakers. A known gambler, Vaccaro puts his job – and those of his colleagues – on the line with a pitch to throw their entire budget at potential number three draft pick Michael Jordan. Despite the fact that Jordan has openly stated that he wants nothing to do with Nike in terms of endorsement deals, Sonny thinks he can woo the star-in-the-making by building a unique shoe in the image of the athlete wearing it.
Affleck and first time screenwriter Alex Convery face an uphill battle out of the gate with Air. How does one make a film about the world of business and product design funny and emotionally resonant, especially when pretty much every audience member going into this knows how it’s going to end? There are three components that make Affleck’s Air so likeable. The first and most noticeable comes in the form of making sure the time period and sense of stakes are well established visually and narratively. Second, sweating the small details that will make all the difference for the people caught up in the story. Third, give an all star crew of talented performers meaty, witty, and complex characters to interact with each other. Air is so assured and pleasingly effortless that the core elements to its construction might’ve been pinned up in Affleck’s production office in the same way Nike CEO Phil Knight had his company’s guiding edicts up on his office wall.
The 80s vibes are off the chart in Air, from the opening montages that showcase the excessive, populist side of the decade to the unbelievably stacked soundtrack budget this thing has. In order to showcase basketball as a sport on the rise in popularity, it’s put into context with everything else that people were into during the time. Sports enthusiasts wanted something flashier, and although a lot of the still burgeoning NBA’s rules and moors were antiquated and in need of some freshening up, people like Sonny correctly identified that basketball would only grow in stature. The production design team does a nice job of showcasing an industry and company on the periphery of being seen as “flashy.” The Nike offices look like a decent place to work by 1980s standards: small offices and desks in a bullpen setting, nice furniture on the floors for the big wigs, period accurate deployment of wood panelling and dubious looking carpeting. It seems like a cramped, but creative place to be, made in the image of laid back CEO Phil Knight, played here by Affleck with a nice balance of business savvy and new age-y sensibilities. Ace veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson finds a way to move around the narrow spaces with a surprising amount of style, doing a nice job of making Nike seem scrappier and more endearing than their enormous counterparts at Adidas and Converse.
Air is the latest in a string of capitalist minded projects that celebrate the companies and visionaries who came up with various things that changed the world. (Just last week, there was Tetris, but it’s best not to talk about how that turned out.) But instead of merely saying that the Air Jordan sneaker was a cultural touchstone for the ages, Affleck and Convery go out of their way to show the major and minor decisions no one sees when thinking about the product in question, and how failure and disappointment lurked around every choice. Not only did Vaccaro have to go to war within his own company to chase after Michael Jordan’s endorsement, but he also bucked industry convention by going around the star player’s agent (Chris Messina) and talking directly to his deal sealing, firm minded mother (Viola Davis). Aided by an increasingly unconvinced, but supportive Knight to protect him from the board of directors, a well connected VP of Basketball Affairs (Chris Tucker), the division’s head of marketing (Jason Bateman), and an eccentric product designer (Matthew Maher), Sonny’s ideas blossom into a team effort, with everyone contributing small changes, tweaks, concerns, and compliments that end up building to a comprehensive whole. Air isn’t about landing a life changing, history making deal, but creating a complete package. Air might revolve around Sonny’s desire to prove his worth, but it’s clear that he’s nothing without the people who help make the vision a reality.
Just as Air gets a lot of entertainment value out of documenting the small steps other movies might find inconsequential, it also extends that approach to its characterizations and performances. It’s little surprise that a seasoned actor like Affleck would always choose to populate his films with a dream team of highly capable, elite level professionals, but he also never wastes the talent at his disposal. Damon perfectly balances Sonny’s confidence and increasing desperation. Bateman nicely plays his character as a person who fears the worst, hopes for the best, and waits until the perfect moment to say how he really feels about a subject. Mahler steals all of his scenes as a high minded artistic type who still understands the business behind creating a sneaker. Davis once again reminds everyone during her limited screen time of the force she can convey as Michael Jordan’s kind, attentive, and surprisingly analytical mother. Messina is an absolute hoot as the vulgar, apoplectic agent who also manages to have a point buried beneath his tough talking tirades. And it probably goes without saying that any scene that brings Damon and Affleck back together on screen bristles with the kind of effortless chemistry only they can achieve with each other. Air is a film with no bad roles, and Affleck has certainly assembled the best team for the job.
As a narrative, Air fits snugly and easily into Affleck’s filmography as a director. All of his films behind the camera have had a similar narrative fixation: people trying to achieve seemingly impossible tasks under the tightest of circumstances and in spite of immovable metaphorical barriers. In many ways, this makes Affleck an auteur in a vein similar to Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has a similar attraction to people trying to navigate complex business, social, and scientific systems to the best of their abilities. Affleck has a natural desire to entertain with his films, but it’s always clear the types of stories that speak to him personally. While some might balk at a film that chooses to celebrate what’s one of the largest corporations on Earth (produced in part by Amazon Studios, no less), Affleck makes certain that it’s the people behind the swoosh that matter more than the product itself. The product at the centre of Air is a symbol of larger parts of the constantly striving human condition, and Affleck succeeds at making a rousing film out of something as simple and immediately identifiable as people trying to do great work at their jobs.
Air opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.
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