With Air, Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, he accomplishes the near-impossible: he makes a pending business deal as compelling as a hostage crisis (Argo) or a bank heist (The Town). It’s safe to say that this Affleck kid knows how to please a crowd (and not just in memes).
His latest is the true story of how a few rumpled executives at Nike gambled everything on a rookie named Michael Jordan by creating a sneaker around his persona (the Air Jordan) and by doing so, changed the way businesses worked with athletes forever. But that’s just the skeleton. At its core, this is a classic underdog tale about the American dream, believing in your instincts, and the risk it takes to jump off a cliff to see where you land.
It’s 1984, and the movie opens with a montage of capitalist-driven, pop culture references from that era like Ghostbusters, Run-DMC, and the famous “Where’s the beef?” Wendy’s commercial. It’s a loud, fluorescent smack in the face, which quickly turns drab when we meet our protagonists at the Oregon-based Nike corporation. Yes, there’s a machine behind all this glitz, and it’s not as colorful as the products.. Enter Sonny Vaccaro (a paunchy Matt Damon), Nike’s talent scout, who’s being pressured by headquarters to pull their basketball division out of its dismal 19% share of the market which is being dominated by Adidas and Converse. Vaccaro knows the only way to make Nike “cool” again is to discover a new player that can endorse their product.
One night, after stumbling upon a commercial where Arthur Ashe shows off his new customized racket, an invigorated Vaccaro urges his cohorts to sink their entire budget into one player and not spread it around to two or three others. Furthermore, they need to create an entire shoe-line around this mysterious wunderkind. The player he has in mind is a rookie named Michael Jordan. So, how did Vaccaro choose the kid with the intense stare from Wilmington, North Carolina? He simply watched footage of his winning basket against Georgetown on repeat and “felt it.” It’s called instinct, and the entire movie hinges on Vaccaro’s gut feeling.
Of course, Vaccaro’s plan is not without some obstacles. First, he needs to get past Jordan’s riotously foulmouthed agent, David Falk (a hilarious Chris Messina). He also needs the backing of Nike’s marketing manager, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), who punctuates the film with its most humanistic moments, including a speech about child support, reminding us that not everyone can take such big swings with their career. And finally, there’s Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), Nike’s CEO, a curly-haired eccentric who recites Buddhist aphorisms while worrying about the paint job on his ludicrously purple Porsche. The rapport between Vaccaro and Knight (aka best bros Damon and Affleck) elicits the movie’s best laughs and most sincere moments. Their scenes together ring true like two frayed veterans trading barbs; the pair, who won Oscars for writing their first film Good Will Hunting, might as well be talking about Hollywood. And don’t forget Chris Tucker’s adrenalized Howard White, the future VP of Jordan’s brand, who brings the house down whenever he’s on screen. Tucker is a gem in every scene.
Corporate lackeys aside, Vaccaro’s main hurdle is convincing Jordan himself, who’s leaning towards signing with Adidas (Jordan is never portrayed; we only see his likeness in a few scenes). In an act of desperation, Vaccaro visits Jordan’s mother, Deloris, played by a blistering Viola Davis. (The real Michael Jordan insisted they cast Davis as his mother). Vaccaro pitches his plan to a woman who’s all business and no bullshit and there’s not an ounce of frailty in her bearing. For Davis and Damon, it’s a masterclass in acting.
If the movie has one issue, it’s the subject matter. Following in a recent trend of filmic bios about entrepreneurs like Apple TV’s Tetris or Showtime’s abysmal Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (which was so proud of its douchiness it required a shower) this one suffers from a few scenes that are so melodramatic, you’ll have to remind yourself it’s a movie about shoes, not espionage.
It’s a testament to Affleck’s snappy directing and Alex Convery’s compact script, which turn material that could easily be stodgy into something largely compelling. He injects every moment with an indelible charge, as if he’s opening a curtain and whispering, “Check it out, this is how the sausage is made.” Also, he goes all in on the nostalgia factor by dropping the needle with 80’s hits by Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Night Ranger, which not only stitch the scenes together, but give the narrative a fluidity it desperately needs.
The film is an obvious homage to capitalism, which is problematic at times, and watching a bunch of frumpy dudes in beige offices isn’t the cinematic equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia. But these are the same reasons the movie works; it sets itself up for failure, then ends up a real slamdunk. Even the most affected moviegoers, including those who could care less about sports or shoes (this critic included), will be taken by the movie’s exalting pace, eccentric charm, and Rocky-like inspirational moments, all of which truly make Air fly by for the audience.
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