Let’s say you wanted to define the dramatic stakes in Ben Affleck’s new, based-on-a-true-story movie Air. Start with the premise: it’s 1984, and Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) needs to convince his boss, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, pulling double-duty), to spend the company’s entire advertising budget, in an unprecedented move, on a single player, the upcoming NBA rookie Michael Jordan (Damian Young). The pitch: build a shoe around the athlete. What follows is a sports underdog story but devoid of any sports, and the so-called underdogs are people who are already very rich. The stakes are further lessened by the fact that if you are alive, you have heard of Air Jordans, and so you also know they are about to get a whole lot richer.
So what is Air actually about? Is this a triumph of spirit? No, although it certainly seems to think it is, painting Sonny’s almost desperate attempts to sway his colleagues as some sort of David vs. Goliath odyssey. Is it about a legendary athlete? No, we never actually see or hear Young as Jordan, and his skill on the court is only glimpsed in archival footage on a screen. Is it about how the superstar’s mother (Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, stealing the show) wisely saw the value in her son and demanded a piece of the shoe sales? Technically that happens, but only in the film’s final moments. So really, the stakes here are about… marketing? Cool…
Air sort of positions Jordan as the Christ of market capitalism, and these executives are then his apostles. We watch as Vaccaro, Knight, and the shoe’s designer, Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), gaze in awe at their creation, which, by the way, we don’t see until the end of the movie. Vacarro asks Deloris if he can speak to Michael, and she responds that “It’s not time.” Late in the film, he makes a dramatic speech and tells Michael that “everyone in this room will be forgotten except you.” That’s sort of true, but also, at the end of the movie, we’re granted a montage of photos of the characters’ real-life counterparts, informing us of how rich they got or how much money, in the case of Knight, they have donated to charity (no mention of Nike’s use of sweatshop labor or human rights violations, of course).
So we can draw the conclusion that, subtextually at least, Air is both gross and weird — an ode to capitalism. But is it any fun to watch? Sort of. Damon is possibly the only guy on Earth who could sell this shit, and he’s delightful to watch in all of Sonny’s paunchy, beige glory. It’s always fun to see a guy good at his job, and the script (credited to Alex Convery) is filled with a lot of jocular swearing and boasting, especially from Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), who is unsurprisingly played as an antagonist whom everyone hates but who actually does secure the best deal for his client, making them both unbelievably rich.
Affleck’s direction is, as usual, unfussy and uncomplicated. Most of Air is shot in a pretty standard handheld docudrama style, although given that it’s shot by the great Robert Richardson, you might want to ask yourself why it sort of doesn’t look like much of anything, let alone something impressive. But the film’s most annoying aesthetic trait is an endless litany of ‘80s needle drops, some more anachronistic than others, all of them just obnoxiously shoehorned into every last moment. Night Ranger blasting on the soundtrack while Sonny…walks into his office. Someone’s pulling into the parking lot at Nike headquarters, time to play some REO Speedwagon. It’s all terribly exhausting.
Still, perhaps the most galling and telling overall moment in Air involves Nike head marketer Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) mentioning that he’s been really into Bruce Springsteen’s new hit “Born in the USA” and has been playing it over and over in the car. He explains that once he actually listened to the lyrics, he realized that this song that’s already been canonized as an uplifting American anthem is in fact a depressing report on the state of things. Then, at the end of Air, that montage detailing how much money everyone made is set to… you guessed it, “Born in the USA” — one punctuating yikes in a cinematic catalog of them.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.