Just shoe it
2023 is apparently the year for “biz-pics,” biopics that chronicle the rise of various corporate empires. Following the enjoyable Tetris, and right on the heels of BlackBerry, comes Air, a Ben Affleck joint. Despite its humble dad-movie ambitions, Air is flying high on Rotten Tomatoes and surpassed box office projections. And for good reason — it’s a fun outing. It’s less stylish and more straightforward than Tetris, and better for it. Air is a satisfying, small-scale piece of storytelling that effectively maps the capitalistic rise of the Air Jordan sneaker phenomenon.
Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is a Nike employee, their basketball talent whisperer, looking for the “get” that will put Nike on the map (though the movie talks around how Nike was already one of the biggest shoe companies in the world by 1984). Vaccaro’s has a two-pronged challenge: The first is to convince Nike to go all in on this little-known rookie basketball player named Michael Jordan. The second is to convince Jordan to reciprocate and sign the deal. The film basically alternates these conflicts on a scene-by-scene basis, and both are compelling.
It’s no surprise that Damon can carry a film like this. Even as the film captures him as a pasty and schleppy bum, lit with harsh fluorescent, interior lights, he’s hugely charismatic. He also has terrific chemistry with the rest of the cast. The ensemble is pretty stacked: Affleck as Nike founder Phil Knight, Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother Deloris, Jeremy Piven as Jordan’s foul-mouthed agent, and Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker providing comic relief as fellow Nike executives, all playing to their strengths. Affleck in particular leans into his smarminess to good effect. Appearing in a small role is Matthew Maher, who is gradually becoming one of my favorite character actors, as Peter Moore, Nike’s shoe-crafting guru.
Air is Ben Affleck’s fifth outing but somehow the first that I’ve seen, and he comes across as competent and unadventurous — perfect for the material. What I admire about his direction here is the sustained momentum in storytelling: the film’s 112-minute runtime feels much shorter. Air is never drawn out nor rushed; the story feels complete and unhurried.
One fun choice by Affleck is the way he shoots Michael Jordan himself (Damian Young). Jordan is ever-present, but his character is shrouded in shadows and indirect shots. The audience never gets a direct, unimpeded view of Jordan, as if he is some sort of divine presence we cannot look directly upon. This lends a mysterious and reverential tone to Jordan’s character, playing into the his mythos.
The film’s biggest drawback is the inherent ceiling in the kind of story it’s telling. The plot is very linear and neat, almost sterilized. It boils down to one person asking another person for money. And there’s something off-putting about the greedy, capitalistic mindset of these “biz-pics” — it’s a little gross rooting for millionaires to become billionaires.
But it’s such a polished, satisfying watch that I’m not too bothered. Air has the right balance of story, humor, and energy. The cast is always clicking. It’s not quite a slam dunk, but it’s a smooth tip in.