Like Mike in His Prime, Affleck’s Air Soars
The first thing to know about director Ben Affleck’s Air is that you are watching a bigger commercial for Nike than any currently airing. The second is that the film goes out of its way to celebrate Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight in a manner that feels more like hero worship than anything incisive or observationally poignant. The third is that the narrative revolves entirely around a shoe endorsement contract and is an ode to capitalism in all its guises.
But the most important item, the one that the majority of the audience will care about? Air is phenomenally entertaining. Heck, some might even call it a slam dunk.
While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I will say that Affleck’s latest is a character-driven winner that scores a cinematic triple-double: It’s very funny, it’s emotionally honest, and, most of all, it refuses to overstay its welcome and knows just when to wrap things up.
It is 1984. Nike’s basketball division is an industry joke that resides in the deep, dark recesses of Adidas’s and Converse’s massive shadows. Basketball expert Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) was brought in personally by Phil Knight (Affleck) to work alongside VP of Marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and executive Howard White (Chris Tucker), since things have been going poorly for years now. Unless sales increase, the Nike board of directors is strongly considering shutting the entire basketball division down.
Sonny has had enough. Nike isn’t giving him or the team enough money to attract top talent. They’ve done a poor job of selling themselves as a top-flight provider of basketball gear. The board keeps them all working with one arm metaphorically tied behind their backs, and as much as Sonny loves Phil and would do almost anything for him, he’s also starting to believe that the CEO has lost the fearless risk-taking determination that helped make Nike one of the world’s largest athletic shoe companies.
What follows is Sonny’s courtship of Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan, the third pick in that year’s draft and a die-hard Adidas fan. He risks everything he has — and inadvertently the careers of everyone in the Nike basketball division — on signing a contract with an unknown and untested player, but one he is certain will turn out to be among the best the NBA has ever seen. Sonny does this by persuading the one person he’s certain can convince Michael to listen to his team’s pitch: Jordan’s mother Delores (Viola Davis).
Although portions are clearly improvised by the talented ensemble, Alex Convery’s intelligently witty script is masterfully constructed. Each piece fits snugly together with its immediate counterpart. Elements that are foreshadowed are elegantly paid off later on. Every character, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has shading, layers, and attributes that allow them to exist as if they were sitting in the theater with everyone else. There’s poetry to the way he’s taken this true(ish) story and made it sing, and much like Moneyball or The Social Network, this is a ticking-clock corporate roller coaster worth buying a ticket to ride.
This is Damon’s best performance since 2009’s The Informant!, and his lively pugnaciousness is instantly endearing. Rumor is Michael Jordan himself urged Affleck to go after Davis to portray his mother — and who am I to argue with his good sense? Anyhow, she’s unsurprisingly superb. Bateman is excellent, and Tucker delivers a knock-out reminder as to how easily he can balance humor and drama when suitably challenged to do so. As for Affleck, he’s dynamite as Phil Knight, so effortlessly slipping into the Nike founder’s iconic sneakers, it’s almost as if he’s been training to wear them for his entire career.
But as wonderful as Affleck the actor is, it’s his direction that’s the MVP element. He may have won a Best Picture Academy Award for Argo and knocked a lot of socks off with his debut, Gone Baby Gone, but it is his dexterous handling of this material I find especially impressive. There’s not an ounce of fat on this film’s physique, and Affleck keeps the pace moving even though everything that’s happening is entirely driven by the dialogue.
The soundtrack overflows in pop, rock, and electronic classics from the era (choice cuts from Dire Straits, Tangerine Dream, and Harold Faltermeyer are especially well utilized), but the sheer volume of needle drops does become a tad exhausting after a while. Cinematographer Robert Richardson may be an industry legend (he has three Oscars on his mantel, for JFK, The Aviator, and Hugo, for good reason), but there is still a drab visual flatness to this film that I sadly admit I did not find particularly appealing.
Thankfully, Zero Dark Thirty editor William Goldenberg’s hands are all over this production, and the Academy Award winner executes with exhilarating precision. There’s also the meticulously lived-in production design by François Audouy (Ford v Ferrari) and the authentically relaxed clothes by costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones (Judas and the Black Messiah). All the little details border on perfection, and Affleck’s handling of the majority of the technical aspects is beyond reproach.
Air may not soar to the same stratospheric heights that Jordan did during his illustrious Hall of Fame career, but that does not make the film anything close to a misfire. It may not be a jumper from the top of the key as time runs out to be talked about in hushed tones and replayed over and over again forever, but that doesn’t make this victory any less remarkable. Affleck’s latest saunters into the tunnel a champion and, ultimately, that’s what matters.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)