Who’d have thought that Ben Affleck would end up becoming one of Hollywood’s most interesting and consistent directors? His latest venture “Air”, is just as slick, just as urgent and just as gripping as “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” or “Argo”, and somehow manages to be so while telling a story rooted in the comparatively drab world of sports marketing. “Air” follows in the stead of such real life, behind the scenes dramas as “Moneyball”, “The Social Network” or “The Post” and succeeds in taking a very narrow, very specific and seemingly inconsequential aspect of legendary NBA player Michael Jordon’s ascension to stardom and making it, if not sexy, then exciting at the very least.
“Air” tells the true story of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the somewhat rogue basketball talent scout for the fledging Nike basketball shoe division, who in 1984 revolutionised the industry by investing Nike’s entire talent budget of $250,000.00 (intended for three basketball different players) in generational young talent Michael Jordon and building the now legendary Air Jordan sneakers around his image. The film follows Vaccaro from the conception of his idea, navigating initial resistance from the Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and convincing Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis) to sign on Jordon as spokesperson before the 1984 draft.
“Air” surprisingly relies very little on Michael Jordan as an athlete or even really features him at all; Affleck cleverly barely shows the face of the actor playing the 21 year old Jordan, explaining in a recent interview that “Jordan is too big. He exists above and around the story, but if you ever concretize him, if you ever say, ‘Yes, that’s Michael Jordan,’ we know it’s not, really. It’s fake.” And he’s right. In this film Michael Jordan hasn’t yet become Michael Jordan; he’s still a concept and a business risk. There is a whole other film to be made about Michael Jordon’s time as a basketball star, but this one is not it. I also think it could strangely be seen as a sign of respect to Jordan and how much of a legend he is – no mortal actor could possibly emulate him and it would be sacriligeous to try. One thing I did think was clever however was during the corporate meeting with Jordan, his parents and the Nike executives in which Vaccaro explains what is likely to happen to him if he takes on this deal and how the media would villify him, while showing real life footage and newspaper headlines of the scandals that would later tarnish his career.
The tricky thing here is being able to maintain suspense and urgency where the audience already knows what’s going to happen, and the film is able to do so because of a tightly orchestrated script. We already know that Nike is eventually successful in signing Jordan and that Jordan becomes a giant in the sporting world, but it’s still a genuinely hair raising scene as Sonny sits by the phone waiting for the call from Jordan’s mother to confirm that he’s taken the offer. It’s an extremely dialogue heavy film, and it’s understandable why; Affleck can’t rely on car chases or escape sequences like in his other thrillers to generate atmosphere. What was unexpected however was the amount of comedic relief in the film, particularly between Vaccaro and Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) demonstrated by some pretty genius schoolboy level insults in one scene – “Everyone has herpes! You know why you don’t Sonny? Because no one will fuck you! No one!”
This film is so much fun, due largely to a sensational screenplay from Alex Convery and some bang on performances from an ensemble cast of well established Hollywood veterans. The stakes may not be as high as your typical action thriller (Jason Bourne with a paunch and a daggy golf shirt makes that pretty obvious from the start), but I think that’s all part of the appeal. Affleck has taken a story which has no business being interesting at all and turned it into a solid piece of entertainment.
By Jock Lehman