If you had told me that a film following a paunchy Matt Damon attempting to sign a young Michael Jordan to wear Nikes would be one of the best films of the year, I would have slapped you silly, but we’re here now and all I can really do is tell you that Ben Affleck’s Air is a welcome triumph.
The year is 1984. The Reagan era is in full swing, Bill Murray is proton blasting Mr Stay Puft, and the billion dollar company, Nike, is attempting to break into the basketball market to no avail. Sports marketing executive, Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) is one of a handful of people tasked with finding the next face of Nike, and hoping to broaden the brand’s appeal. Converse is a juggernaut of the basketball world and Adidas is all the kids want to wear. Vaccaro, a gambling man and at his wits end, stakes his entire career on fresh faced player, Michael Jordan. Butting heads with founder Phil Knight (Affleck), and working at a disadvantage from the get go, Vaccaro uses every trick in the book and every ounce of his charm to will the deal of a lifetime into existence.
There will be a multitude of comparisons between Air and Moneyball. Both stories of desperate individuals attempting to save a dying sporting franchise by any creative means necessary are deeply compelling. Where Moneyball lends itself to being deeply sincere, Air trades on the novelty of nostalgia, humour and compelling characters. A tight script by Alex Convery and deft direction by Affleck, a big part of the fun of Air is watching all of the pieces come together and the near misses that could have proven fatal for Nike. Before the movie’s begun, we already know how this story ends. Michael Jordan is THE basketball player, and Air Jordans are a household name, both crossing over into modern mythic territory. But, to see the mad dash to get this young player signed by any means necessary, outwitting the competition, and possibly upending the entire industry in one fell swoop offers an entirely new dimension.
Damon’s Vaccaro is a missile of tenacity and cookie dough, and Jordan is his Hail Mary. Sick of the playing-it-safe grind that Nike has fallen into, Vaccaro, along with Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker), would rather blow up the ship then watch it sink, going against norms, grains and streams to get the win. Damon, ever the reliable player, plays Vaccaro with a great sincerity, with more of a love for the game than a love of money. Interestingly, there’s never any one scene that felt weak or unnecessary. Affleck leaves no fat on the film, cooking with just the right amount of the ingredients, something that’s no doubt a difficult task when working with this level of talent.
When Viola Davis’ Deloris Jordan enters the picture, a calm washes over the film, a nice balm counteracting the nervous intensity and bravado that’s come before. Davis’ Deloris is a warm yet calculated individual, someone who knows what’s best for her son and exactly what he’s capable of. More than anything, you believe she’s trying to protect her son from the vultures of the industry that would happily pick him apart for all he’s worth. And it is here where both her and Vaccaro find their middle ground, an understanding that while a lot of money is at stake, it’s mitigating the price of player exploitation that’s far more important. If I had to lay one morsel of criticism at this film’s feet, it’s that the issue of players’ labour rights could have been explored a little more thoroughly.
For a film where – bar archival footage – not a single game of basketball is played on screen, Air is riveting from top to bottom. Affleck, a director of incredibly few missteps continues to demonstrate what a talent he is behind the camera, driving energy through a story that would have otherwise made for a lacklustre Netflix docu-series. A film for the sneaker heads, uber fans and those with a keen love of the sport have a treat in store with Air, serving as a reminder that at one point we all wanted to be Like Mike.