I don’t care about shoes. I hear about people who own dozens of pairs of them and talking about “limited editions” of them and the like and they just seem kind of crazy to me. These are basically the least visible clothing accessory there is unless you go around staring at people’s feet like a weirdo. I for one own exactly one pair of shoes (outside of my snow boots) and those are a pair of black New Balance walking shoes that look good enough to wear to work settings but are comfortable enough to wear in casual situations and my choice of brand is almost entirely a function of that being one of the few major companies that make wide sizes that fit my sasquatch feet. Needless to say, this means I don’t have any particularly warm feelings about the Nike Corporation, makers of average athleticwear that has become wildly overvalued through hype marketing and related bullshit. Additionally, I’m not much of a basketball fan and was a little too young to have really appreciated Michael Jordan’s dominance in that sport. So, needless to say I’m not the natural target audience for a movie about Nike’s decision to sign Michael Jordan as a paid endorser of their shoes, but that doesn’t mean this was necessarily doomed to failure as a project for me. I’ve also never so much as signed up for Facebook, but that didn’t preclude me from loving David Fincher’s The Social Network and I’ve also never been a fan of Apple Computer but that didn’t stop me from being interested in the movie Jobs, so I went into Air a bit skeptical but still curious.
The film begins in 1984 in a meeting at Nike attended by staff basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) where the division is trying to decide which of the year’s draft picks they’re going to sign. They know they can’t afford the top three picks: Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, and Michael Jordan. Vaccaro is interested in Jordan but they only have $250,000 to work with and marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) believes the obvious safe course is to spend that on three lesser players to spread the risk rather than blowing it on one of them who could flame out and he knows that CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) agrees with that approach, especially given that Nike’s basketball division is on shaky ground at that point. Once Vaccaro takes another look at some of the tapes from Jordan’s college career he becomes even more convinced that he’ll be the a generational talent and goes on a mission to woo him over to Nike and away from Converse and Addidas and convince Knight and the board to go along with the plan. In order to do this he even goes so far as to go around Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and fly out to North Carolina to personally meet with Jordan’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon), who are skeptical but will set up a meeting. At this point it becomes increasingly clear that Nike needs to close this deal if it wants to stay in the basketball shoe business.
Air was directed by Ben Affleck, in his return to the director chair after a seven year absence following flop status of his 2016 film Live by Night and some chaotic experiences acting in the DCEU. In many ways this feels like something of a safe project to return with given that he’s once again working with his buddy Matt Damon, isn’t working with huge special effects or elaborate sets, and is tackling a subject matter that most would agree is not wildly high stakes. What he has instead constructed is a fairly breezy business procedural anchored by an almost comedic screenplay by Alex Convery that gives most of the characters a certain witty rapport. One could go as far as to accuse the film of being downright overwritten and it does kind of indulge in a lot of slightly clunky jokes hinting at future events, like scene where the possibility of signing Charles Barkley to an endorsement deal is dismissed on the grounds that they don’t think anyone is going to want to see him talk on TV. But on balance the film’s script and dialogue is its biggest asset and including some genuinely funny moments like these profane rants on the part of Jordan’s agent.
All of this, combined with a pretty solid cast make the film a pretty enjoyable viewing experience that I can’t argue with too much, but I also can’t help but question the point of all this. On its face “tell the Michael Jordan story from the perspective of the dopey white people who want to pay to leech off of his fame” just seems kind of out of touch as a pitch and watchable as it may be I’m not sure it ever quite made the case for itself that it needed to make. That’s not to say that the movie is entirely uncritical of the craven ad men at the movie’s center and the film does ultimately try to make a case for this athlete signing as having allowed for more lucrative future deals for athletes, but I don’t know, that still kind of feels like a first world problem that’s being solved. I’m also not sure that it entirely brought to life the characters here; sure, they’re given fun personalities but these certainly aren’t probing character studies and some of the film’s other decisions like it’s wall to wall 80s music soundtrack and its sometimes distracting ways of avoiding having to cast someone as Michael Jordan. It’s no The Social Network is what I’m saying, and for that matter it’s no The Big Short, but there are worse things it could be. If you once thought Ben Affleck had the chops to become the next Clint Eastwood behind the camera this won’t necessarily advance that cause, but hey, at least it’s not another superhero movie… or is it?
*** out of Five