‘Air’ review: Underdog Ben Affleck’s story takes off thanks to a dynamite throw

The hallmark of a great historical film is one that makes viewers forget they know how it will end. The ship is not going to stay afloat in the Titanic. Woodward and Bernstein figure out how to expose the Watergate story in All the President’s Men. King George will address the nation in The King’s Speech. But all of these films leave their viewers in awe of the plot twists and dynamic characters, making confidence in the outcome secondary to what they’re watching. Directed by Ben Affleck’s “Air” never quite does it – mainly due to the choice of script and direction – but it controls enough of the audience’s attention and generates enough surprise to deliver a very entertaining two hours.

In 1984, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) oversees the search for basketball talent for Nike sponsorship. At the time, the sneaker company was primarily known for running shoes and its basketball division was shrinking. Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), VP of Marketing, knows how close the entire department is to being shut down by CEO Phil Knight (Affleck). Vaccaro decides that they must bet the future of the basketball program—and the entire corporation—on one up-and-coming player about to start his rookie season: Michael Jordan. Vaccaro must convince his bosses to go along with the plan, as well as offer the winning pitch to Michael’s agent (Chris Messina) and, more importantly, Michael’s mom (Viola Davis).

“Air” took off in large part due to the way its impressive ensemble of actors interact with each other. Often hilarious, but there is a particularly noisy scene between Damon and Messina that will stay with the audience long after the credits roll. And while most of the cast is devoted to powerful jokes born from a backdrop of amazing chemistry, Damon and Davis are the two emotional centers around which the film revolves. Damon’s Vaccaro is a persistent dreamer who makes a big bet that should never work, and mostly succeeds through his passion and vision. Davis, meanwhile, is flawless as the no-nonsense mother of the man everyone wants a piece of. This does not mean that she is harsh in the film, but her genuine love for her son is shown through intuitive wisdom that helps protect her child.

The performance is superb across the board, with each cast delivering incredibly memorable roles. Chris Tucker as Howard White (another Nike employee) is a highly anticipated character whose charm pairs nicely with the drier elements of Damon’s laconic comedic style. Julius Tennon (Davis’ real-life husband) exudes friendly warmth as Michael’s father, who is clearly the softer touch of Michael’s parents, but who nonetheless has his own store of strength and wisdom. On its own, Affleck’s appearance (very similar to his real-world counterpart) is funny, but it’s his alternation of zen approaches and wacky mannerisms that makes him a terrific part of a larger cast. There are no bad actors in the band and they all find ways to truly work as an ensemble without ever outshone each other.

Also, Robert Richardson’s DP cinematography isn’t flashy or full of a lot of movement, instead using simple frame adjustments with focus shifts to convey a lively quality to every scene. Much of the film’s color palette is the off-whites and browns of a 1980s corporate office, with little excursions to greener pastures or more sober corporate headquarters. This aesthetic on the part of the cinematographer, who is greatly assisted by production designer François Audouy, supports this grounded approach. Not only do the dialogues between the characters feel real, all the settings feel like the real places these people live in.

Ben Affleck Air
Amazon Studios

There’s something really odd about Michael Jordan not actually having any lines in Air, and he’s never directly shown except out of focus or courtesy of stunt double Damian Delano Young. One can’t help but feel that the man at the center of this whole story is not so much a man deciding his own future as a commodity used in contract disputes between various factions. The fact that a black man is absent from most of these white business scenes is a little confusing if you think about it long enough. At the premiere of SXSW, Affleck said that the exclusion of Michael Jordan as a character was because Jordan is such a special person in the story that the actor/director has such reverence that it would be strange if someone else stepped in to fill the role. . role. “Air” is ultimately about the business decisions made by those most passionate about the situation, most notably Deloris and Sonny, but excluding Jordan remains an odd choice in Alex Convery’s script and Affleck’s direction.

There are other stylistic decisions that do not work in the “Air”, distancing themselves from the public. There are too many needles in 1980s pop music and it starts to get distracting when every scene has one to three different chart-topping hits just to remind people it’s actually the 1980s. This constant reminder extends beyond the soundtrack to various elements of ephemeral pop culture: Coleco handheld games, posters for period-relevant athletes and politicians, fashion, cars, and more that almost scream, “Hey, remember 80 th?! ? That constant underscore of the decade seeps into the script itself, with much of the humor being a reference to the fact that some players never made it big in the NBA while others had brilliant careers on the court and in the booth. This flurry of winking references makes it difficult to fade into a story where the destination is not a foregone conclusion, instead reminding viewers that they know how it all ends.

And yet… “Air” is still an underdog story, where the third-place basketball shoe company vies for the world’s most sought-after athlete despite being outgunned. The charm of an Affleck film is that it’s hard not to get caught up in the trials and triumphs that this plucky bunch of marketing misfits endure on the long road to launching the Air Jordans. It’s a testament to the performances and especially the chemistry between the actors that these sequences overcome winking references and some odd style choices to still deliver gripping moments that audiences can’t help but laugh at and rejoice at. Davies’ palpable strength also lends a different type of energy to Deloris’ scenes, where it’s no longer goofs trying their best, but a woman who refuses to let anyone decide the narrative of her son’s life. “Air” manages to bring these different tones together, sometimes even in the same scene, without feeling harsh or forced.

Affleck did a nice routine that hilariously and poignantly follows the story from Vaccaro’s idea, watching a video of a game, to a boardroom presentation of the product with the future greatest athlete of all time. Movies like this don’t get made that often these days—movies that forgo big effects and flashy performances for down-to-earth characters, made real by the actors’ solid turns. The jokes in Convery’s script are funny, but it’s really the actors, under Affleck’s excellent direction, that make Air something special. He doesn’t convey every scene or mood; but when the film is good (which is often the case), it fires up.

Air opens exclusively in theaters on April 5th. before subsequent streaming to Prime Video.

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