Air tells a cliché story with confidence | Pittsburgh City Paper

Air tells a cliché story with confidence

click to enlarge Air tells a cliché story with confidence
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Ben Affleck in Air
It’s easy to forget how confident Ben Affleck has become behind the camera. He hasn’t directed a film since 2016, after all, and not one that most people have seen since his 2012 Oscar winner Argo.

Air, the latest from Affleck, now playing in theaters nationwide, finds tension in the simplest of setups. It takes a lot of restraint and skill to mine high drama out of standing in line at the airport or out of a meeting in an Oregon boardroom. Air succeeds because Affleck trusts his story, trusts his cast, and trusts himself to know that these moments are their own action movie.

On its face, Air is a story we’ve seen a thousand times. A "sports movie that isn’t about sports,” it drops us into the Nike offices circa 1984, where the sneaker company's struggling basketball division can’t figure out how to conquer their competitors. That is until confident and brash “basketball guru” Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) proposes an idea: build their entire line, their entire brand, around an unproven rookie named Michael Jordan.

He meets resistance, of course, in the form of family-man marketing exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and eccentric CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, hamming it up in enjoyable fashion). Vaccaro overcomes, he makes impassioned speeches, and he applies the lessons sports taught him to his real life.

If this all sounds familiar, it's because it all is. So, in the words of Jordan’s insightful and no-nonsense mother Deloris (played here by Viola Davis), “How do you stand out?”

Well, for starters, some of the names listed above take care of that. One of Affleck’s best strengths as a director is knowing how to get the hell out of the way and let actors do what they do. Bateman is perfectly cast as a mix of everyman and smarm, Chris Tucker and Chris Messina make the most out of small parts, and Affleck finds the ruthless genius behind Knight’s absurdity.

The crux of the film lies in a scene between Deloris and Vaccaro at Jordan’s North Carolina home. They talk about families and mothers and Michael's future. But they’re also sizing each other up, understanding motivations, and cutting through pretense with eye contact and context. It’s a really incredible scene featuring two veteran actors understanding how to create something fresh out of something so tired.
click to enlarge Air tells a cliché story with confidence
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Matt Damon (left) and Viola Davis (right) in Air
It’s a shame, then, that Air insists on spelling out every single motivation a character might have. Vaccaro is a gambler, you see, so we need an expository scene of him gambling in Vegas to preclude how he’ll operate at Nike. Marlon Wayans pops in as former coach George Raveling to tell Vaccaro a painfully on-the-nose (albeit true) story of owning Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream'' speech and realizing King improvised much of it because he sensed it was what the audience needed. Because you see, that’s what Vaccaro does when he really needs to seal the deal. Metaphors!

Of course, there’s also the thorny issue of the story centering around a group of white executives making their careers off the labor of a Black athlete The film actually handles the inherent sleaze of this premise better than expected, with many of the characters leaning into their slippery motives, and some humorous dialogue around Adidas’ checkered German past. But the decision to never actually show Jordan himself or let him speak felt like a miss, a move made to avoid casting a larger-than-life figure.

At its core, Air is a crowd-pleaser. It works because it hits the notes we know, and it hits them well enough that we respond to them. I enjoyed the moments when Affleck and his cast dug a little deeper and tried to find some intricacies in a story revolving around the most famous athlete of the last 50 years. But sometimes, we have to accept reality and understand that the shot where they debut the Air Jordan for the first time is pretty fucking cool.

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