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The year is 1984, and Nike is on the verge of shutting down its basketball division. While on paper the third-largest sports apparel company in the country, Nike lags far behind Converse and Adidas and continues to fail in their attempts to draw topline talent in the NBA. So when Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is put in charge of recommending players to target in the upcoming draft, he proposes something risky: take their entire sponsorship budget and allocate it all towards Michael Jordan, the North Carolina basketball star and third overall pick in the draft.
Jordan is not a sure thing, though. His agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), is advising him against the deal; even Sonny’s colleagues Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) believe that Sonny is gambling with the future of the company. But the most important piece of the puzzle is Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), Michael’s mother, who may be the only person in the business who truly sees her son’s potential. If Sonny is going to convince the Jordans to sign with Nike and bet the future of the basketball program on a single player, then he needs to develop the perfect pitch — and the perfect shoe.
When compared to films like “The Town” and “Argo” — or even the sumptuous and underrated “Live by Night“— “Air” is a particularly yeoman work from Affleck. This appears to be Affleck in Aaron Sorkin mode, building his movie around the performances of a group of actors hand-picked to help him craft an insider narrative. There may not be a lot of overt stylization to the film, but there’s a comfort to be found in a story about competent people trying to build something meaningful. It also helps to have Damon, a veteran of Steven Soderbergh films, as your leading actor. Damon specializes in a kind of everyman competence on screen; we buy him as the smartest voice in the room, even when hanging by a professional thread.
Those who judge biopics based on period details will also find a lot to enjoy. While the film may suffer from an abundance of overly familiar musical queues — the soundtrack plays like a never-ending Spotify list of charted ’80s songs — it also walks audiences through the state of the apparel marketplace in the years before personal deals became commonplace. There’s a homogenization to all three clothing companies that reflects the lack of the individual in their brand strategies; as Sonny and Rob develop the now-signature shoe, they remark on the fact that companies like Nike were trying to use the company to sell the player when the truth was actually the other way around.
That’s an important distinction and one that seems top of mind for the filmmakers. Whether by design or inference, there’s an element of autobiography to every Ben Affleck performance, and “Air” is no different. It certainly doesn’t help that Affleck has given himself a critical supporting role in Nike CEO Philip Knight. On paper, Knight is the quintessential American success story — an entrepreneur who built a billion-dollar company from the back of his trunk — but that success has come at a cost. Once Knight took his company public, his world narrowed to balance sheets and ledgers. Now Knight spends most of his time fretting about his shareholders, wandering through the darkened halls of his company spouting Buddhist philosophies about self-actualization.
One does not need to dig too deep into “Air” to see the professional manifesto that lurks beneath the surface — it barely qualifies as subtext. In 2022, it was announced that Affleck and Damon had partnered on Artists Equity, a new production company developed with the stated goal of introducing a new revenue-sharing model to the age of streaming contracts. It is no accident that their first film is about a group of businessmen who break the wheel in search of greatness. “Air” might draw people in with promises of backroom negotiations and the launch of a sports icon, but the film — especially in its climactic final minutes — feels like Affleck telling the industry he wants to try a better way.
And that makes “Air” a fascinating metatext from a filmmaker whose entire life often reads as a work of accidental performance art. As a sports movie, “Air” is competent in all the right ways — good performances, strong dialogue, and a nice focus on 1980s production design and world-building — landing in the upper echelons of the Dad Movie lexicon. But as a thinly-veiled reflection on the industry he’s looking to change, Affleck’s movie is meant to reach far beyond the boundaries of sports. It may seem weird to celebrate a movie for its subtext over its text, but then again, that is pretty much Affleck’s career in a nutshell. [B]
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