In a miraculous feat, Ben Affleck — in a film that has no real arc for its main character, relies on drama revolving around events that we already know happened, and is based around the minutiae of signing a celebrity endorsement for a shoe — directs his pants off to deliver a gripping compelling drama in the form of Air. Unless you live in and around a rock, you’ve heard of Air Jordan. A shoe line from Nike, it is one of the most famous celebrity-endorsed products of all time. This film follows Sonny Vaccaro, a sales executive at Nike, who sees something special in Michael Jordan and is determined to sign him at all costs.
In a way, Air‘s drama is utterly predictable. Vaccaro faces obstacles from within his company about the impossibility of ideas, bounces off of Jordan’s agent who is adamant that Jordan wants nothing to do with Nike, and an array of competing companies. The film heaps on the stakes by making it clear that failure will result in the end of Nike’s basketball division and the loss of many jobs. Yet even these stakes, at a script level, feel a tad facile. And since even a non-sports fan knows about Air Jordan shoes, the outcome is clear from the start.
So why does Air work so well? It’s all about Affleck, who directs the film with such finesse and skill in probably the best directing job of his career. He grounds us in the 80s period with an opening montage of 80s culture and media to establish a clear mood. From big hairdos and constant use of period music, Air places you in a time and place where a celebrity endorsement of a shoe is believable as a life-changing event. The film also goes to every length to convince you why this shoe endorsement is the endorsement. Despite knowing the outcome, because of the pacing of the editing, the breakdown of each scene, and the way film amps up the tension, you’re on the edge of your seat for the key scene where the shoe is pitched to Jordan.
The film also wields a solid cast. While most of the roles are small, for guys like Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, and Chris Messina to chew some scenery, the movie is grounded in Matt Damon and Viola Davis‘s performances. Damon’s character on paper is hardly compelling. In fact, other than his being fired, you really have nothing to care about with him. Yet Damon brings enough charisma and force to the role that you can’t help but find him interesting. This is encapsulated in a monologue he delivers while trying to land Jordan. Davis stars as Jordan’s mother, which is great casting as Davis what she does best and brings her quiet strength to the character. There’s also the appeal of seeing longtime friends Damon and Affleck play off of each other. Despite Affleck being somewhat asleep at the wheel as Phil Knight, his scenes with Damon can’t help but crackle with energy.
There’s no real reason this movie should work as it does. But Air shoots for a three-pointer and scores. It’s lively and exciting and possesses an innate confidence that you’ll find it interesting. It’s a prime example of how a director can take a decent script and make it excellent. Air does not redefine sports drama movies, but it might make a true believer out of you on how a shoe can come to mean so much to so many people.
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