‘Air’ Review: Actor-Director Ben Affleck Scores a Winner in This Entertaining and Well-Acted Biographical Sports Drama
Imagine the what-if scenario of Ben Affleck directing a Michael Jordan biopic. Now, this is something I’m really looking forward to. But as it turns out, instead of a biopic, Affleck directs a true-story sports drama about the legendary basketball shoe. Air Jordan, to be exact – the shoe that was built specifically for the then-basketball rookie, Michael Jordan, who would go on to become one of the greatest athletes of all time.
This begs me an all-important question: How do you make a 2-hour movie that can sustain the audiences’ interest about Nike making a pair of basketball shoes? As Rob Strasser, Nike’s director of marketing, said: ‘A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it’ the movie – ‘Air’ – sees Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery manage to find a solid reason to make us care (well, at least I do) about what could have been a mere movie about a pair of basketball shoes and turns it into one of the best films ever made this year.
And by doing so, Affleck builds a compelling drama surrounding the landmark deal and history behind making Air Jordan shoes. A drama that is not only well-paced and entertaining with an excellent ensemble cast led by Matt Damon but also the way Convery’s screenplay made his dialogues sing – all smart, witty, and punchy.
The story takes us way back to 1984, and kudos to Affleck for perfectly capturing the time capsule of its era with Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ playing in the opening credits, complete with a montage of images and clips from some of the most popular and significant 1980s pop cultures (one of them includes the 1984 original of ‘Ghostbusters’). We learn that Nike is struggling in their basketball division to land a sponsorship deal with potential athletes as they fall behind their strongest competitors, including Converse and Adidas. And it’s up to Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), Nike executive and ‘basketball guru’, to come up with a miracle, or the company’s CEO and founder Phil Knight (Affleck) has no choice but to shut down the division.
Sonny has heard pitches and suggestions during a meeting, but none of them clicks until one day when he watches a tennis commercial and an old basketball game footage on VHS, he sees something unique. A then-twentysomething basketball player that goes by the name of Michael Jordan shoots the ball into the basket with relative ease like he owns the court. He rewinds and replays that same scene over and over again just to make sure. His instinct tells him Michael Jordan is the one worth signing for.
Of course, things do not go smoothly at first when Sonny tries to convince Phil to sign Michael Jordan by spending the company’s annual budget of $250,000. The budget is supposed to spread across a few players instead of investing solely in one player. And yet, Sonny insists that Jordan is totally worth the price. The obstacle doesn’t stop there as Jordan attempts to get a meeting with Jordan by going through his agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), only to find out that Jordan himself is more interested in striking a deal with Adidas.
So, Sonny breaks the rule by flying all the way to North Carolina to convince Jordan’s parents, Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon). It was an unethical move that angers David, but Sonny took the risk anyway. With Jordan’s parents are scheduled to meet Converse and Adidas, Sonny does whatever he can to secure Michael Jordan or prepare to lose his job.
Affleck’s lively direction helps a lot in ‘Air’, and so does Robert Richardson’s cinematography and François Audouy’s production design, which successfully captured the vintage feel and look of the early 1980s. Needle drops of ‘80s familiar hits are spot-on, covering the likes of the aforementioned Dire Straits song to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A..’ The acting is top-notch.
It’s nice to see Matt Damon and Ben Affleck team up again since they last appeared in Ridley Scott’s ‘The Last Duel’ two years ago. Damon delivers an engaging performance as Sonny — easily one of the best acting I’ve ever seen in years. The same also goes for Affleck, whose supporting turn as Phil Knight is just as praiseworthy. Both Jason Bateman and the long-missed Chris Tucker provide respective solid supports as Rob Strasser and Howard White, while Chris Messina steals the show each time he appears on the screen as the foul-mouthed agent, David Falk.
The movie also gets an extra boost from Viola Davis, who gives a commanding performance as Jordan’s mother, Deloris. The only downside about the cast is the strangely nondescript appearance of the young Michael Jordan. Played by relative newcomer Damian Young, he is only shown either offscreen, from behind, or at a distance. I get that Affleck is deliberately making such a decision not showing the actor in full as the basketball legend but at the same time, I can’t help but feels somewhat odd that his appearance is obscure the entire time.
Despite its minor shortcoming, ‘Air’ is a great character-driven sports drama and has undoubtedly been Ben Affleck’s best directorial effort since his Oscar-winning ‘Argo.’