Film Review: Air
Director: Ben Affleck
Skydance Sports and Artists Equity
In Theaters: 04.05
It’s important to recognize when you have a one-of-a-kind player who can drive a team to victory. Air involves two such players: all-time NBA great Michael Jordan and leading man Matt Damon, and both prove themselves as electrifying talents.
Air is a fact-based sports movie that isn’t a sports movie, though it is about game-changing innovation and risking it all for a potential win. Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a middle-aged, out-of-shape basketball super freak who is working for Nike in 1984 and searching for up-and-coming players who can add marketability to the brand through endorsement deals. Nike has yet to make an impact in the basketball shoe market and is trailing far behind Adidas and Converse, and the company wants to sign three players with the allotted budget of $250,000. Sonny has his eye on just one prize: Michael Jordan, a rookie who just signed with the Chicago Bulls.
Sonny is convinced that the right play here is a two-in-one: Use the entire budget to sign Jordan before the competitors and create an all-new shoe exclusively tied to the player and his image. It’s a tough sell, though. To make it happen, he has to convince his bosses, particularly Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), and Jordan himself, who is intent on signing with Adidas. Sonny bets everything on gaining the trust and endorsement of the most powerful and influential person in the young player’s life: Michael’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis).
Air marks Affleck’s first foray behind the camera since the 2016 dud Live By Night, which was his weakest film as a director in part because he cast himself in the lead role and wasn’t right for the part. Learning from that mistake, Affleck has given the job over to his old friend Damon, who gives his most likable performance since The Martian and benefits from returning to the partnership after the tepid and tedious Stillwater.
When they work together on the right material, Affleck and Damon bring a relentless, exhilarating passion, and they both give some of their best work when they have something to prove. While Alex Convery has the screenplay credit, it’s been well established that the Good Will Hunting duo did their share of reworking the material, and the sparkling dialogue has their unmistakable touch of inspiration all over it. The attention to detail in design and setting of the period couldn’t be more on point, as Affleck avoids the common pitfall of cramming the feel of the entire ’80s into one year.
The all-star team on Affleck’s acting roster is impressive, with Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker providing Damon with countless assists as his co-workers Rob Strasser and Howard White, respectively. Chris Messina (Sharp Objects) is quite memorable as Jordan’s insufferably caustic agent, David Falk, and Affleck himself turns in one of his most self assured and natural performances, comfortably playing against type as an aging yuppie with zen attitude, moving miles away from his roid-rage Batman persona.
If there’s an on-screen MVP besides Damon, it’s Davis, who imbues Doloris with grace, dignity and fierce intelligence. It’s easy to see why the guy who was the idol of nearly every kid in America idolized his mom. In the rare scenes where we see Michael Jordan, he’s photographed from behind and doesn’t speak. This preserves the image of the real Jordan and keeps a distance that allows him to remain a legendary figure. After all, Nike wasn’t selling a person or even a shoe—they were selling a legend.
Air is a return to form for Affleck the director and Damon the actor, and hopefully it’s the beginning of a renaissance for both as the flagship film for their new production company, Artists Equity. We can only hope that the level of love for storytelling and commitment to excellence that we see here remains a hallmark of future projects, because if it does, we’re looking at a championship-level team with an incredible future ahead of them. –Patrick Gibbs
Read more reviews of sports movies:
Film Review: Champions
Film Review: Hustle
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