Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Review: AIR

 by Rob DiCristino

Or: We Made a Shoe

Early last year, I wrote about how eagerly I was anticipating a new period of creative exuberance from my favorite modern screen star, Ben Affleck. Stabilized by personal enlightenment and emboldened by professional triumphs, Affleck seemed to be on the cusp of a genuine breakthrough, an era (era) in which he would finally embrace the freedoms and wisdom earned over his decades in the Hollywood trenches. And, indeed, there has been an easiness to these last few months that found Affleck delivering delightful supporting performances (in George Clooney’s The Tender Bar and Ridley Scott’s underrated The Last Duel) and headlining Deep Water, a steamy fuck noir from fuck noir superstar Adrian Lyne. It was only a matter of time before Affleck returned to the director’s chair — from which, lest we forget, he helmed 2012’s Best Picture-winning Argo — for his fifth feature effort, another story ripped from the pages of recent history, a brisk and rousing drama about one of professional sports’ greatest marketing triumphs.
Air begins in 1984, as Nike VP Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, finally leading a picture for best pal Affleck) scouts freshman basketball stars for potential sponsorship deals. Vaccaro is a maverick with an eye for genuine talent, but basketball shoes aren’t a hot commodity just yet, and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, decked out in colorful period lycra) is unwilling to commit the kind of money that rivals Converse and Adidas are dolling out to the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Fellow executives Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) urge Vaccaro to set his sights (and his division’s modest budget) on a few middle-tier candidates, but Vaccaro knows that Nike needs a shot in the arm if it’s going to survive the revolution that only he seems to see coming: They need Michael Jordan. With Jordan’s agent (Chris Messina) balking, Vaccaro travels to North Carolina for a direct appeal to his mother (Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan), the only other person who senses Michael’s unique greatness.

Though Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery are chronicling one of the most storied landmarks in corporate synergy, a deal that ultimately led to hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue and a fundamental shift in the control that athletes hold over their cultural images, Air never feels overly maudlin or sanctimonious, nor does it rely on the romance or solemnity that Bennett Miller brought to his terrific Moneyball (one of Air’s closest cinematic cousins). Instead, it hums with an easy charm that makes the whole thing feel shot from the hip, as if it’s just another one of Vaccaro’s lucky rolls at the craps table. Damon — sporting the cozy paunch and sensible slacks of a middle-aged divorcee — doesn’t play Vaccaro as a conniving huckster or a tortured soul on the crest of inspiration, but rather as a diligent observer waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him. It would stink if Nike and Jordan couldn’t make money together, sure, but it would be worse if Jordan settled for anything less than what Vaccaro believes he deserves.
Vaccaro’s passion is exemplified by a few gorgeous, close-up appeals to the Jordan’s better angels — mostly to Deloris and James (Julius Tennon), as Michael is cleverly kept almost entirely off-screen — but other than that, Air is careful to stay light and amiable where other dramas might overdose on profundity in order to make shoe sales seem more important to the everyday audience. Affleck keeps things fun and energetic throughout, focusing on the common threads that join each character’s personal agendas rather than some immovable truth about which they all must be convinced. This is just business, after all, and there will be more of it. But then again, Vaccaro and his boys could really use a win that contextualizes the neon indulgences Affleck takes great joy in showing off throughout Air — There’s some excellent car phone work in this movie, by the way — something that grants the Reagan ‘80s a bit more humanity. A nice scene with Bateman’s character, especially, reminds us that all the free sneakers in the world won’t fill the gap that an absentee father leaves in his daughter’s heart.
And so while Air never reaches the inspirational heights of similar works — say, Draft Day — and is sure to give historical fact-checkers plenty of omissions, embellishments, and inaccuracies to salivate over — a preoccupation I’ve never understood in fictional films, but ya’ll do you — Ben Affleck’s fifth feature is a perfectly serviceable TBS afternoon diversion for dads everywhere, a feel-good story about gamblers taking gambles and legends being legendary. It’s about how quickly we can jump to commodifying talent before we really take the opportunity to appreciate it, how we even tend to dilute it through comparison and hold onto outdated metrics for success because they make for good water cooler banter. Every now and then, though, we rise above all that and build something that can last a generation. And then, forty years later, other people get to play dress up and make a movie about it with their best friends. We can’t all be Michael Jordan, I suppose, but that sounds like quite a bit of fun to me.

Air hits theaters on April 5th.

1 comment:

  1. Say what you will...this film FINALLY opens the door for some epic product based cinema! Coming in late 2023:

    * File Folder Fixations: Playing for Trapper Keep(er)s
    * Rich Friends in the 70s: The Green Machine Story
    * The Bedazzler Murders (true crime)
    * People Will Purchase ANYTHING: POG Life
    * The Firing of Mondo Division: Funko F@cked-o
    * Something Something Can-we-bring-back-cargo-pants? Something
    * The Rise and Fall of the Genco Pocket Hairbrush (probably worth a google if you're over 40).

    Thanks Rob! Appreciate your musings on film!!!!!!!