AIR – movie review

Basketball is huge in America; and Air Jordan shoes are now synonymous with it. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Director and actor Ben Affleck’s (Argo) new film AIR tells the story of how the greatest basketball player of all time, the shoe and the Nike company came together.

So this is one of those movies where the outcome is never in doubt. It does however put together a convincing plot about a group of people striving for a common goal, even if they disagree on how to get there. It hits some familiar beats and doesn’t get into more problematic elements; making it an ideal popcorn movie for basketball fans and sneakerheads alike.

The putative hero of the piece is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike’s rather frumpy basketball director. It’s 1984 and Nike is mainly associated with running shoes, a market where they’re very successful. But basketball is dominated by Converse and Adidas, who’ve deals with all the top players. Nike’s plan A in 1984 – as in previosu years – is to spend a meagre budget on three on four lesser players. Sonny however thinks differently. He believes in a rookie named Michael Jordan and his plan B involves betting the entire budget on that one player. They’ll then build a shoe (and a brand) around the player, rather then just having a player wear the shoes. His easy-going superior Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) is talked around easily enough. But Nike head honcho Phil Knight (Affleck) is another proposition. With one eye on the bottom line, Knight is reluctant to bet that big on a single player – even the number 3 overall draft pick.

A combination of Knight softening and Vaccaro going behind his back sees Sonny in touch with Jordan’s hard-nosed agent David Falk (Chris Messina). But a casual remark sets Sonny down a different path. He reaches out directly to the family. It quickly becomes clear the real power lies with Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis). And if Sonny thought Falk was a tough negotiator, he ain’t seen nothing yet.

If you’ve been watching recent sports movies based in real life, you’ll probably notice parallels between AIR and say Moneyball or Ford vs Ferrari. The film solidly sticks in its lane and doesn’t really delve into the messier aspects of the corporate-sports connection. Steven Soderbergh’s searing High Flying Bird is a much more thoughtful exploration of a similar (but not identical) scenario. At times, the script by rookie screenwriter Alex Convery veers into self-congratulation and hero worship. Affleck also makes some strange directorial choices – like having an actor playing the young Michael Jordan appear in several scenes but never showing his face. Seems like the corporate shenanigans might be ongoing.

For all that though, AIR is never less than entertaining. Affleck’s breezy directorial style suits the material to a tee. While Convery’s screenplay might not be deep, it’s certainly engaging and pretty funny considering the subject-matter. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (Venom: Let There Be Carnage) and production designer François Audouy (Godzilla vs Kong) do a brilliant job of re-creating the 1980s. And the bouncy soundtrack featuring plenty of 80s tunes (and including artists from Dire Straits to Miley Cyrus) deftly evokes the time and mood.

The real draw for AIR though is the cast, which features three Oscar winners in Damon, Affleck and Davis. They of course don’t put a foot wrong and they all deliver wonderful – but varied – performances. And for your next trivia night, Davis’ real-life husband Julius Tennon (The Woman King) plays Deloris’s husband James. Jason Bateman (Game Night) brings an affable quality to Strasser, and Chris Tucker (yes, that Chris Tucker) returns to the big screen for the first time in 7 years as Sonny’s fast-talking colleague Howard White. But for all the amazing talent on show, two smaller performances really stood out for me – Matthew Maher as shoe designer Peter Moore, and Chris Messina who steals every scene he’s in as Falk.

As someone who’s into neither basketball nor sneakers, I struggled a little to care about the stakes in AIR. Even as a non-fan, I knew how it all turns out (who doesn’t?). But I still enjoyed the ride the movie took me on. So while it maybe wasn’t a slam-dunk for me, it was an easy lay-up.

David Edwards

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