Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman
Intentionally or otherwise, few actors have cornered the market for Dad Movies as sturdily as Matt Damon. You know the type of flicks. The ones your old man would happily have a snooze to on a Sunday afternoon because the material is “right up his street”. Be it a sports biopic like Le Mans ’66 or an adventurous rescue mission to Mars (NASA antics = a big tick for Dads), Damon has something up his sleeve to accommodate the cardigan-sporting remote control guardians of the nation’s armchairs.
With his buddy Ben Affleck he now has (another) big business drama to add to his bow (see multiple previous Soderbergh collabs), although this reframing of globally dominant sports shoe brand Nike as the little-company-that-could makes itself something of a tough sell.
Pivot back to 1984 and Nike wasn’t quite the goliath it became and, in terms of basketball buys, was being beaten out of the game by Adidas and Converse (this is prior to Nike’s eventual acquisition of Converse). Chief spotter for upcoming talent Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) is quietly pulling his hair out over his team’s lack of gumption. He sees the future of the company’s athletic sponsorship in the shoes of Michael Jordan, if only he could be permitted to tailor a shoe around him and only him.
Jovially referred to online already as ‘We Bought a Shoe’, Air is just the latest in a run of pictures that apply the wheels and machinations of the biopic to a product; an unsettling trend that follows the corporation’s own legal upgrading to personhood. Corporations aren’t people. They’re businesses with capitalist intent. Air might be aware of it’s own vacuity. Marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) comes close to verbalising this when he deconstructs Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A” in a lengthy diatribe to Vaccaro. The speech ultimately asks us to question what’s underneath Air. Where, excuse the pun, is the sole?
I’m still looking. A majority of the movie is about getting in the room to pitch to the Jordan family, making it feel akin to a Mad Men episode that’s underscored with ’80s soft rock and – distractingly – the recurring motif from Brian De Palma’s Body Double. To Affleck’s credit he keeps things pacy, and to the greater credit of everyone on screen, the actors do their jobs (with the exception of Chris Tucker; still excruciating, always). Bateman is out there channelling Michael Bluth in what almost feels like a lost role reprisal. Viola Davis has few scenes as Jordan’s mother, but banks them with her usual credibility. Chris Messina is having the most fun, allowed off the leash to improv wildly as Jordan’s manager David Falk as if he’s been choppered in from The Wolf of Wall Street. Most enjoyable, however, is the rarefied screen time shared by long-time friends Affleck and Damon. If neither of them are taking this 100% seriously, its enough seeing them have a ball on screen together again.
But this isn’t Dogma or even The Last Duel. Air is pure corporate hagiography. What’s being sold isn’t Jordan’s inspirational athleticism, it’s the supposedly heroic grunt work of a business deal. The remainder of Nike’s spurious practices aren’t given much of a look-in. Strasser seems appropriately ashamed of their sweatshop dealings in Asia, but this is barely glanced at and then swiftly glossed over. No. Air is about that particular brand of American patriotism that predicates itself wholesale on making a buck. Making another one. Making more than your competitors. Having the most and winning. Come the end of the movie, Affleck’s dawdling on-screen text is preoccupied with numbers. Millions. Billions. He even halos Phil Knight’s philanthropy. Google this figure vs company profits over the past 40 years. But this isn’t even the film’s most glaring aspect.
Notably – and problematically – exorcised from this narrative is Michael Jordan himself, who appears in only the most minimalised of ways, with few lines of dialogue and no face-time whatsoever. While many of the white characters spend pages of the script praising Jordan to the nines, this silencing and vanishing feels queasily indicative of an exploitational industry. I’m talking about both Nike and Hollywood. Affleck’s argument is that Jordan’s legacy is too large, and would capsize what is pointedly a business story. But this feels, ultimately, like a PR line intended to diminish deserved flack. It is simple erasure, no matter how often you breathlessly remind the audience of the man’s fearsome talent. In the context of the story being told, it is awkward.
So yes, Air is just a pitch. A commercial for Nike. It talks the talk. It tries to walk the walk. The hard sell doesn’t lack conviction, but conviction in what? Vaccaro’s misty-eyed speech to the Jordans at crunch time is structurally compared to Martin Luther King improvising his iconic “I have a dream” speech. But the two are not the same, and placing them side-by-side is, ultimately, crass. Vaccaro’s goal isn’t progress or altruism. It’s a sponsorship deal. Your dad may or may not ask these questions with his feet up and a cold one nearby. Sunday afternoons aren’t really about such soul searching or politics. But Air can’t quite hide how galling it is, or how spiritually bereft it and it’s growing brethren are.