'Air': A Compelling Slam-Dunk of a Sports Drama
There are few figures in the world of sports as iconic as Michael Jordan. In addition to being commonly regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time, Jordan has had an interesting life both on and off the court, full of highs and lows. Even though the hit docuseries The Last Dance covers a great deal of his career, it wouldn't be surprising if a biopic is made about him in the future. One would certainly think we would have got a movie about him well before we got a movie about how the Air Jordan shoe came to be, but that is precisely what we get with Ben Affleck's latest film, Air. The idea of a movie that is all about how Nike got Michael Jordan to sign with them might seem a bit ill-advised, but it ends up being a rather winning film that is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Air takes place in 1984, and centers on Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a basketball talent scout for Nike. The company is facing some difficult financial struggles and are in desperate need of a successful shoeline. While Nike wants to play things safe, Vaccaro comes up with an idea that is risky, yet ambitious. He wants the company to focus all their money on one player: Michael Jordan. He sees the potential for a great partnership between Nike and Jordan, but striking a deal between the two is easier said than done. Nonetheless, Vaccaro and Nike work tirelessly to come up with the perfect strategy to get Michael Jordan to accept their deal, which will change the world of sports forever.
I am admittedly a huge fan of Michael Jordan. I was a kid when he was in the NBA, and I thought he was the coolest athlete of all time. That said, even I was a little skeptical going into Air. While Ben Affleck has proven himself as a director, and the film would be telling a story that most people are unfamiliar with, I just wasn't sure how it might pan out. At worst, I thought it might end up being a glorified Nike commercial, and have very little substance to it. Thankfully, it ends up being quite entertaining, and while it may not have too much nuance or anything extremely deep going on, it has a straightforwardness that allows it to feel more honest, and doesn't necessarily glorify Nike. Sure, the company is a huge part of the film, but that is more due to how integral it is to the story, as opposed to feeling like product placement.
It's a true testament to Alex Convery's screenplay, as he is able to capture the importance of the Nike/Jordan deal from a cultural standpoint, as opposed to a commercial one. The film could have easily been spun as pro-capitalist propaganda about one of the most recognizable companies in the world, but instead, we get something more earnest and grounded than I was expecting. In essence, it's a movie about people doing their jobs and doing them very well, which is always fun to see. Add in the stakes of the deal itself, and how a rejection from Michael Jordan could ruin the company, and the film gives the audience something to latch on to. There is a certain relatability to how the film portrays the phone calls, meetings, and discussions that the characters have, and that is key to the film's success. These characters don't feel like hot-shots or overly important figures, they feel like regular people who find themselves in a major situation. It certainly makes it easier to connect to what is happening in the film, and it gives the film a fair dose of humanity that makes the rest of it play out nicely. On top of this, the film is surprisingly funny, and made me laugh way more than I would have ever guessed. The humor flows so naturally, and plays well against the more direct nature of the film. It is highly impressive that this is Alex Convery's first screenplay to be produced, as it is quite strongly written and feels like it could have been written by a seasoned pro. I definitely can't wait to see what he does next, as he truly has a gift for screenwriting.
It also helps that Ben Affleck is back in the director's chair for this film, as he is able to make Convery's screenplay sing. After his last film, Live by Night flopped, I was beginning to wonder if we would get another directorial effort from him. It feels like he was simply waiting for the right project to bring to the screen, as he is a solid match for this film. He does a great job of keeping the momentum going, and allowing moments to hit with great efficacy. It's a bit of a mainstream approach, but man, does it work great here. There is a simplicity to how Affleck directs the film, but it allows the story to shine through, and makes the film as a whole quite captivating. It isn't a very showy film, but it isn't trying to be either. It is the type of film where what you see is what you get, and the honesty in both Affleck's direction and Convery's script is rather refreshing.
One of the film's most fascinating elements is how it includes Michael Jordan himself. It is rather reverent towards him, and treats him as an almost mythic figure. It helps underline the stakes of the deal that Nike is trying to make with him, and plays into the overall narrative of the film wonderfully. Damian Delano Young plays Jordan, but his face is never shown. We only see him from behind or at angles that obscure his face any time he shows up on screen. This once again gives Jordan an almost sacred quality, and works quite well for the overall film. It gives him a higher status than the other characters in the film, and makes his presence felt throughout the film.
Perhaps the film's strongest asset is its all-star cast, all of whom turn in excellent performances. Matt Damon does some of his best work in years with this film, and the drive he brings to the character makes it difficult not to root for him. There is a certain everyman quality he brings to the role that allows his portrayal of Sonny Vaccaro to feel more realistic, as opposed to a more stereotypical biopic performance. Ben Affleck isn't half bad either, and clearly relishes playing the more eccentric qualities of Nike co-founder Phil Knight. He wisely plays these elements straight, which further contributes to the film's more grounded tone. Even though he is only in a few scenes, Chris Tucker basically steals the show. Tucker's trademark high energy is used perfectly in this film, and he provides some great comic relief as well. I was also impressed by Matthew Maher, who similarly has little screen time, but makes every moment he gets count. Maher has a great screen presence here, and more than holds his own against his more high-profile co-stars. The film's MVP, however, has got to be Viola Davis. She may not have the biggest role here, but she nails every scene she is in. Even in the moments where she is just listening or reacting, she is electric. It's the type of internal performance that I love to see, and she is simply excellent here.
Air is a bit of a surprise, as I wouldn't have ever guessed a film like this would be as entertaining or as enjoyable as it is. There is so much talent across the board with this film, and everyone is doing top-notch work. It might not take many risks and be a bit conventional at times, but it is still rather exciting all the same. It's a slam-dunk of a film that is sure to hit with audiences, and might even appeal to non-basketball fans. It is more uplifting and sincere than one might think, and feels genuine, as opposed to being a feature length Nike commercial. It may not be anything incredibly groundbreaking, but it is a nice little film that is easy to connect with, and one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year.