We can often forget how broad the sports world is. For one, it’s never just about the game at best. Nor the athletes at varying degrees of career achievement. For another, the people behind the medium don’t always suit up in uniforms. Others who play can be found behind the court, looking to make a deal and elevate a name to legacy, even brand status. The shared playing field of sports merchandising and overall athlete has been linked (directly and indirectly) for at least three generations. Though well before platform-wide reform became a dominant zone of corporate back and forth, one company and one famed superstar shook hands to disrupt the system, and make it look easy in their wake. Director Ben Affleck (Live by Night) proves just how easy, punctual, witty, and even captivating the process can be in Air. Almost like chess, if it involved professional footwear.
And one couldn’t ask for a sharper professional checkerboard than Nike in the mid-80s. Their stalwart bishop Phil Knight (Affleck) is owning his side of the marketplace, despite hefty competition from Converse and Adidas. But even he and his loyal rooks will admit perfection hasn’t been achieved just yet. The latter two have the atmosphere trounced on athletes’ endorsements, with the company’s top scout, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) struggling to crack a figurative golden goose’s egg for the Oregon-based company’s basketball division.
His idea to Phil and fellow exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), court Michael Jordan ahead of his drafting by the Chicago Bulls for a shoe designed in his name and image. Not an easy suite of events, as Jordan’s already pursuing sweet terms with Adidas. For Sonny to close in, he’ll bypass traditional routes like a shrewd, short-fused New York agent (Chris Messina), and speak right to mom Deloris (Viola Davis) and dad James (Julius Tennon) who certainly know best for their son. But unlike a hesitant boardroom, they’re yearning for a new challenge to the industry, both on a personal and financial lens.
Both Affleck and first-time screenwriter Alex Convery prove their adeptness to capturing both perspectives, throwing them into the same bullpen with not a shred of animosity between them. Any negativity or shade is balanced with a compassionate, humanist tide that doesn’t bury the finer details of business transactions or athletic prowess to appease the common viewer who may or may not be watching as a basketball fan, let alone a supporter of enterprise. Either one play like simmering background choral grooves to Sonny’s plan, impetuous with a purpose, complimenting the core plot to a reflexive fault. Even to the point where we hardly see Jordan in frame, and never upfront.
The very subject of Nike’s deal is figuratively observing from the bench while the real players go to work with an upbeat gumption and a hearty pace. What would otherwise steal the focus and lean so heavily that it spoils the character development is put in a more respectful place to keep character development in the driver’s seat. A very smart choice on Affleck’s part, priming his focus on the real decision makers, without it being symbolic of power. The pivot better represents the universal link between win and loss, the emotions circling either bucket.
Convery makes very quick work to establish the stakes of Sonny’s venture, what’s at risk, and what he stands to gain in tandem. Self-righteousness is exchanged for newfound selflessness when collabortating with his peers. Damon exudes that in spades, committing to his role with a charming, anxious, assertive pluck. Affleck as his boss (in multiple respects here) screams mindful big brother energy, unable to hide his nerves, as much as Bateman can’t contain his frustration over what could bankrupt them all. Without it being shoehorned in, his character is shown with more to lose versus Sonny as a single guy with reckless traits.
Damon does prove he can still work well with others, the same way Sonny justifies, then negates that idea depending on who he’s talking to. Messina can look the other way and still poke clever, profane jabs, warning not to cross the waters. Davis guides a gentle hand to wade Sonny through. And in the middle find the likes of Howard White (a wonderfully sly Chris Tucker) and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) struggling to stay impartial but are, like the audience, rooting simply for the best outcome.
And Affleck knows who his heroes are off the bat with this quiet epic, recognizing the positives of brand appeal, the impact of creative marketing, and the impetus of strong partnerships beyond simple handshakes and pleasantries. While not played by a recognizable actor, Jordan is one to root for, his stamp firm with this story, trusting Affleck to get the facts right. And even insisting on Davis to iconize his matriarch, a loving yet stern figure looking out for one’s best interests, including a fair cut of the participation.
There’s enough of a thrill in his designating Air a sports drama ala Moneyball, a giant step up from his prior brush with hoops in The Way Back. Even more, it’s a classy tale of teambuilding and business philosophy. The former can never be too restrictive, nor can the latter be overly permissive or calming. Knight may be the early champion of these ideas, but Sonny gains a dedicated upper hand, taking strategy to heart while also finding his tribe in both his colleagues and with the Jordans, cementing future provision.
And all this in a rather tumultuous, classical time for both sporting legends and brand positioning. An era captured effusively by cinematographer Robert Richardson (Venom: Let There Be Carnage) through interpersonal, handheld camera close-ups in stretches, grainy or generational image filtering elsewhere. Through period appropriate attire, recreated by Charlese Antoinette Jones (Judas and the Black Messiah), taking greatest pleasure in highlighting both classic business suits and understated Nike track wear. And in a no-rules auditory footprint, composer-free though inundated with a varying array of needle drops, anchored by the likes of Tangerine Dream. It wouldn’t be all that shocking to ID this mix as selections from the director’s home vinyl hookup.
A not-so-bygone era finds its way back into a modern light with Affleck in the driver’s seat, guiding his actors through. But it’s all the Damon and Davis show in Air, the pair balancing two separate degrees of the same end goal, comical overconfidence and profound drama, into a cohesive whole. It’s quite the umbrella, protective of its cast of subjects delivering drilled in performances, while being a modest shred of everything it could be. More than a simple film about sports, and its now antique business model, it’s a triumphant case of character-driven storytelling, shared minds surpassing a grand feat in unfamiliar ways, for what would evolve into the greater good without thinking of future ramifications. Both Sonny and Michael are legendary icons in their own respects. Affleck might have a ways to go in the director’s chair, but a film like this where creativity and skill transcend both real life and foretelling dramatization instantly places him back on the right flight path. (A-; 4/5)
Air opens in theaters April 5; rated R for language throughout; 112 minutes.