Released: 5th April
Seen: 17th April
In the history of sports, there are a handful of people who are so talented at what they do that it transcends the world of sports and they just become a part of the culture, and there is no one in history who exemplifies that more than Michael Jordan. Even if you don’t know a damn thing about basketball, even if you’ve never seen a single game and couldn’t give a single solitary crap about any of it you know who Michael Jordan was. He is widely considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time, some might even argue that he’s the greatest sportsman of all time.
He has etched his name in the history books, he’s the name that people use as a point of comparison and he revolutionized how sports endorsements worked in the industry starting with his famous deal with Nike that created the well-known Air Jordan line of sneakers and became the first endorsement deal to give the sports figure a cut of the profits instead of a flat fee… the process behind making that deal is the basis for the film Air, so get ready for an hour and a half of exciting pitches for shoes!
Instead of focusing on, say, Michael Jordan, Air puts the camera on salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) as he tries to get Nike to make a deal with one of the new draft picks for the next basketball season. He has to work with people like Robby Strasser (Jason Bateman), Howard White (Chris Tucker) and his CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to get them to see why they should take their tiny budget for endorsements and bet it all on the up and coming Michael Jordan. Turns out though that the most important person in this deal who they will have to convince might actually be Michael’s mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) and she is not a woman who is easily convinced, so their pitch will need to be flawless.
Considering Air’s premise is just about a basic sponsorship deal it is kind of impressive how much intrigue and emotion they manage to pull from such an idea. With the sponsorship deal as a reason for things to keep the film going, the film takes its time to let the audience see the inner workings of the Nike brand in the 1980s and explores these behind-the-scenes interactions that we don’t really get to see that much. It manages to make phone calls with agents feel like exciting arguments between a pair of witty insult comics, it turns a shoe designing session into something visually akin to the planning of a heist and turns exhausting late-night meetings into touching moments of triumph, all thanks to the expert direction of Ben Affleck who is on top of his game here.
Air moves at a stunningly brisk pace, keeping up a certain energy that runs throughout the film and keeps you fully engaged. It doesn’t shy away from some of the more technical aspects of the deal-making process, it certainly speeds them up because we only have 2 hours and it’d be stupid to waste any of that time but it still manages to make clear how long this kind of deal could take while moving at a fun brisk pace, throwing out good quick banter and some heartfelt moments just for good measure.
On top of all this heartwarming charm is a good layer of 80s cheese, cheese that the film almost makes a point to call out by having characters discuss the real meaning of the song Born in the USA or marvel at the notion of a car phone. The look and feel of the film bring to mind films from the 80s, again in huge part this is due to that expert direction that’s undeniably where most of Affleck’s energy went. The film just works on pretty much all levels, looking good and often quite funny thanks to the banter between characters.
It’s also an undeniable bonus in Air’s favour that it has such a fantastic cast. Matt Damon is a great emotional core for the film, Jason Bateman is charming and witty enough that every scene he has is fun, and even with his weird wig and beard combo Ben Affleck manages to have the right energy to make it work. To the shock of no one though the film basically belongs to Viola Davis who is such a pure ray of light and grace when she walks into the film that you wonder why the film isn’t just about her as the focus, though if they did make her the focus then the film’s big magic trick of hiding Michael Jordan from view would be substantially harder.
Indeed that’s where the biggest problem comes in, the fact that the film is about Michael Jordan means one key thing… there isn’t a single solitary iota of dramatic tension to be found anywhere in this film at any point. This isn’t on the filmmakers who are certainly trying, it’s just because they’re making a film about one of the most famous human beings who ever lived and one of the most famous brand deals ever, we know from the jump that this deal will go through and it’ll basically change the lives of everyone involved in ways they don’t have the time to describe so, therefore, there is no ability to create tension. This isn’t even an “If you’re educated on the subject, you know how this turns out” issue, this is an “If you have lived on planet Earth for any length of time in the last 40 years you know how this turns out” issue.
They do try to handle this with two smart moves, the first is to just avoid showing Michael as much as possible (As Affleck has pointed out, this was just because they knew the audience would never go along with some actor playing Michael Jordan because we all know what Michael looks like, which is fair) and the second is to just lean into the audience’s knowledge. Sure the film might essentially stop to have a main character turn directly to the camera and deliver Jordan’s history in a jaw-dropping several-minute monologue complete with archival footage as evidence that it’s true but at least it seems to know what it’s doing, it’s an intentional choice because they can’t just have the film open with the stars going “We know you aren’t holding your breath, just relax people, we know!”
Unfortunately, that lack of dramatic tension means that, while the film is undeniably pretty damn great and evidence of what a good cast, director and script can accomplish, it’s hard to really feel strongly about it in any way. It’s a film celebrating a corporate sponsorship deal that revolutionized the industry, but that’s just not exciting enough to really get the emotions going. There’s certainly a good waft of nostalgia in the design of what’s on-screen and appreciation of the great filmmaking and, again, an undeniably splendid performance by the most recent EGOT winner Viola Davis but there’s just no dramatic tension to be found which makes it a film that feels a little like it just exists as an example of how to tick all the boxes without doing anything tremendously exciting.
Air is good, undeniably so. It’s well cast, wonderfully shot and enjoyable to watch but you’re not about to learn anything new or have any moments of excitement or intrigue. It’s just a well-made film that does just enough to be a good time but not a particularly impactful time. It doesn’t shock me that this film was originally meant to just be for a streaming service because it feels like the kind of harmless well made film that goes on in the background while you check emails, it’s still good and you can get some enjoyment out of it but it’s not one that demands your full undivided attention, especially because you know everything that’s going to happen thanks to cultural osmosis.
One thought on “Air (2023) – Let’s Get Some Shoes”
Agree with everything here..As someone who has probably never watched an entire NBA game.. this movie was wonderful. Even though you know the outcome – Affleck just directed it so brilliantly you actually were kept in a state of suspense almost.. and that soundtrack! wow! So glad we get to see movies with ones like this!