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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Air // Film Review

When does patriotism become annoying?

This question, once known as the ‘Top Gun Problem’, could just as soon be called the ‘Air Problem’ following this latest effort from Boston brothers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Air, the pretentiously condensed title of the origin story behind Nike's AirJordans, is a film which takes the iconography of 1980s American excellence and wields it like a soul, despite it being largely irrelevant to the tale at hand. It is a film which cannot go a single scene without at least one cheesy grin, one inane protestation that our man can’t pull it off, and finally a play-off to an 80s pop hit your dad could sing in his sleep. It is a massively stupid proclamation of American underdog greatness… and yet it might just get away with it on charm alone.

Air owes its successes to the cast, led by Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, a sports marketing consultant with a gambling problem largely brushed over as a love for thrills. Joining him on screen are Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser, Sonny’s all-round good guy colleague recently humbled by divorce; Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, a former athlete with a gob that can run, and Ben Affleck (who also directs) as Nike's CEO Phil Knight. The team is a cluster of clichés made tolerable by some very game, and surprisingly whacky performances (Affleck is a particular highlight, leaving one to wonder how Nike could possibly have signed off on this eccentric and often pathetic interpretation of their own CEO).

The film is laser-focused on the negotiations around persuading then-amateur basketball player Michael Jordan to endorse Nike sneakers despite fielding better offers from both Converse and Adidas. It's a relatively brief story, given that Nike only pitched to Jordan once, but the film makes the most of its limited runway by framing that fateful as the culmination of what is essentially a heist. There is an inescapable thrill here, as our characters pull favours and deploy their respective skillsets over the course of a lean ninety minutes to get Jordan into the room for those final 20. Affleck works especially hard to fill these moments with style, which is where the egregious 80s mood board comes into full swing. Montages of Pepsi bottles, pin-up posters and big men rolling their sleeves are peppered throughout the film without any rhyme or reason. It's nonsense, but so was Top Gun: Maverick, and that one worked a treat.

Despite its obviousness elsewhere, Air is surprisingly coy when it comes to depicting its subject. Michael Jordan does not appear in the film except through tricky camerawork which obscures his face, instead being represented and spoken for by Viola Davis as his mother Deloris. Affleck has been quoted as saying that, when consulted on the film, Jordan asked only that Davis be the cast in this key role, and the request has undoubtedly paid dividends. That said, given the actor in question, it was never going to be a major risk.

And while this casting works, it does raise a larger question about biopics, particularly in situations like these where the subject is still alive and able to contribute to how the story is told. While Jordan himself is not a character in the film, that does not stop the ensemble from waxing poetically about him in every other scene, celebrating him as more a demigod than a man. In a pivotal scene in Air, Matt Damon's Sonny says to Jordan: "we'll all live and die, but you'll be here forever." This is a particularly striking statement for a film purporting to be a commemoration of the Nike team. In an age of celebrity redemption stories like Rocketman and King Richard, there is a feeling of insincerity which toes the line between memoir and vanity project.

Of course, Sonny goes on to say in the same speech that the American way is and has always been about "building people up and tearing them down", before promising to make Jordan immortal. This monologue is entirely played against a score clearly evoking the Star Spangled Banner, aligning the film's fixation on Reaganite popular culture to Jordan in such a way as to frame him as the beating heart of the nation. It is no secret that Reagan loved the idea of transforming stars into symbols (with himself coming first and foremost), but this re-contextualising of Jordan's shoe deal as one of the great American triumphs feels a little stretched. Your mileage will vary, but ultimately your enjoyment Air rests entirely on whether Matt Damon can sell sneakers like Tom Cruise sells planes.


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