Ben Affleck’s unlikely sports drama Air is a surprisingly involving, often very funny piece of corporate histrionics. The Amazon Studios and Warner Brothers coproduction about Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) and Nike’s risky venture to land a contract with hotshot NBA rookie Michael Jordan in a bid to invigorate their failing basketball sneaker line isn’t the kind of movie that pops on paper but under Affleck’s steady hand, it’s a verifiable upset of a feature.
I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s timeless edict: it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. In that regard, I was surprised to be so invested in a movie about a corporate shoe contract that I knew was eventually going to be signed. I’m no sneakerhead, nor am I a Michael Jordan devotee. To be perfectly honest, I’m hardly even a fan of basketball. But like the best crowdpleasers, Air works in spite of existing allegiance. You don’t need to be a sneakerhead, a Michael Jordan fanatic, or even know the rules of the NBA to enjoy the film. Much like the basketball shoes at the center of the story, it’s truly a film designed for all.
A sports drama in the same way that Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball is a sports drama, Air uses the bones of an underdog comeback story and applies it to the macro world of sports. Vaccaro is Air’s Billy Beane. He’s got a nose for the game, particularly for young recruits; traveling the country to sniff out new talent before everyone else snaps them up. Vaccaro’s role at Nike? Find sixth to twentieth string talent to hawk shoes. Emboldened by Howard White (Chris Tucker), aided by sports marketer Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and with the ear of maverick CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), Vaccaro, a gambler, flips the script on Nike’s existing approach. Gone are the days of hedging bets on a spread of okay talent. Vaccaro sees the betting everything on a seismic contract with Michael Jordan as the only way forward. Air draws the line between his roguish play and the inevitable inking of a deal that would change the course of athlete-sponsor contracts.
In the pole position, Damon is as good as he’s been in a decade, tapping into an assured, emotional aura that’s eluded his last few screen appearances. So too does the rest of the cast show up to play, with Affleck once again tapping into his snarky, unlikeable side as Phil Knight; Viola Davis does her thing (her thing being being a phenomenal actress in pretty much whatever you put her in) as MJ’s business savvy mother Deloris Jordan; Chris Messina steals the most laughs as an unhinged, expletive-spewing agent; and Bateman does his deadpan straight shooter routine to great effect. You just can’t help but love this cast and root for whatever inevitable success awaits them.
Alex Convery’s script’s biting humor and the cast’s sharp delivery work in perfect harmony, one well-conceived alley-oop after another, to make Air a surprisingly belly-laugh-rich time at the theater. If there’s anything holding Air back from being a complete slam-dunk, it’s the fact that the story itself does seem a bit inconsequential and lacking in stakes. We as audience members are essentially asked for root for the increased market cap of an already billion dollar industry giant. It just all feels a bit dry. There’s board meetings, sales pitches, and contract negotiations. In that regard, it’s Succession without the family drama. Or Industry without the excessive drug use. Except you know who wins before it’s even started. That Affleck is able to package the whole thing up into something that leads to an emotional, inspiring crescendo in the third act is a testament to his ability to sell you just about any story. It’s just that you can see the salesman behind the curtain.
CONCLUSION: Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ is an untraditional sports drama that’s both sharp and funny, benefitting greatly from its truly standout cast. Unlike Michael Jordan though, it will not be remembered forever.