Arguments over who is the greatest athlete of all time must forever cease. Only one player in any sport has ever had an entire film made about that one time he signed a shoe endorsement deal, directed by and starring Oscar winners.
In the same way that Margret Atwood’s singularly brilliant “Robber Bride” is entirely focused on a character who exists only in the descriptions of others, “Air” is a Michael Jordan movie with less than 1% Michael Jordan in it. Unlike “Robber Bride,” or any other Atwood novel, “Air” is also a love letter to a multibillion-dollar company. The film asks audiences to embrace Nike as an upstart underdog. Ah, yes, who can’t help but root for those rambunctious rebels to overcome the odds and go on to…open sweatshops?
To be fair, writer Alex Convery and director Ben Affleck use the last third of this fuzzy-wuzzy sports-centric “true story” to put forth a weird, tepid embrace of athletes overcoming impoverished backgrounds and the power of “little guy” middle management. It’s a weird coda to tag on a tale that asks you to root for a cliched CEO and the success of an organization that was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal as recently as last year. The worst part? I liked it!
It’s hard not to enjoy “Air,” which follows paunchy sports savant Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). In 1984, with Nike thinking of shuddering their flailing basketball division, Sonny begs Nike bossman Phil Knight (Affleck) to blow their whole budget in an effort to sign Michael Jordan. Hard to grok now, but 40 years ago, MJ wasn’t a sure-thing superstar. He also wasn’t quite the diamond-in-the-rough that only Sonny could see, as the film strains to project.
At any rate, Sonny butts heads with MJ’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), who is basically Tom Cruise’s character from “Tropic Thunder” who maybe once read a manners blog. Knowing that Falk was going to get MJ a deal at Adidas or Converse, Sonny heads to North Carolina to make a mildly unethical plea directly to Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), Mike’s mom. With a door at least slightly cracked for a Nike deal, Sonny works with marketer Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), exec Howard White (Chris Tucker), and shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) to create a shoe-line that we all know would go on to be the most successful in the history of money.
This is one of the obstacles that “Air” vaults as effortlessly as a Jordan jumper. Somehow, Affleck is able to evoke true tension about whether or not a contract we all know gets signed will, in fact, get signed. As with every directorial effort he’s ever had, so long as we all agree to forget “Live by Night” happened, Affleck demonstrates impossible, improbable talent behind the camera. In front of it, he has at least added an entry to his “silly hair” oeuvre. Beyond the always flawless Davis, who expectedly pops in a brief role, Damon and others are all fine here. Not much is asked of the cast really.
This is because “Air” doesn’t really give anybody any character beyond a few base notes. Sonny is a gambler. Rob has a kid. Howard jokes about race stuff a lot. That last one feels like an attempt to sidestep another big pandora’s box. If corporate apologia wasn’t enough of a concern, perhaps the optics of having a story about one of the most powerful, important Black men in history reduced to the experiences of White-dude-footnotes seems…not ideal. There’s even the mention of MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in service of motivating Sonny to shoot his shot with MJ. Whether or not any of this is malicious, the air of “Air” feels bleached of something valuable and important.
The laser focus on the making of the deal also feels like an effort to avoid socioracial context. That part is fine, good actually, as it does play a bit like a slightly clumsier cousin to “Moneyball.” That is said with a wild degree of respect for “Moneyball,” the coolest thing to ever happen to statistics. “Air” isn’t there, but it also isn’t far off. If you can get past the sloppy smooch to capitalism, the nearly-MJ-free MJ-centric plot, and dodgy race-based issues, you will find a punchy, pleasing anecdote about one time a guy made a lot of money, reenacted partly by Viola Davis. You could do worse, is what I’m saying.
Grade = B-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Aisha Harris at NPR says “there’s something ultimately hollow about trying to extract FUBU mentality from what amounts to a two-hour ad for Nike and the uber-rich, especially in this economy.”
Rendy Jones at Rendy Reviews says “The monologues are well-written, but the script presses that button too many times, lessening the impact of some of the most pivotal scenes. Even when you think the film is about to hang up the towel and wrap up, it keeps dribbling to an unnecessary nearly two-hour runtime.”
Marriska Fernandes at Exclaim! says “It’s easy to root for Damon’s Vaccaro — even when he’s unethical in his approach, and especially when he’s delivering those inspirational monologues that, in lesser hands, would have sounded corny. With Damon’s delivery, even I wanted to join Nike.”