Swoosh! – Film Review: Air ★★★★

I’m not the world’s biggest sports fan, although give me two weeks of Olympic Games and I’ll watch almost every solo event. I enjoy watching people push past their own limits, seeing the years and years of training right there in the focus of their hard stares and that beautiful release when they stick their landings. Team sports, however, trigger me, sending me right back to gym class where the dumb jocks would knock me down onto the basketball court surface for a rousing game of “Trip-A-Fag”.  I’d always get up, brush myself off and adopt a “You guys!” attitude, but inside, I died just a little bit each time. So is it any wonder I can only stomach the halftime show at the Super Bowl or watch a graceful gymnast execute a perfect dismount as she vies for the gold?

Matt Damon in Air. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Despite all of the past trauma, I still enjoy a good sports movie. When Jimmy Chitwood promises to make that final winning shot in Hoosiers, he’s swearing a blood oath to all of us hoping for a better tomorrow. Is it possible to look at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s entrance steps without thinking of Rocky and the promise the title character represents?

The same feeling, I thought, must be true for any sports fan who first tried on a pair of Air Jordan sneakers and recognized what it meant to step into the shoes of the most legendary basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. In Ben Affleck’s fifth feature as a director, Air, he, with debuting writer Alex Convery, explores the incendiary time in 1984 when Nike sought to sign the then little known basketball player to their company, changing forever the way athletes participated in the profits of products to which they attached their names. It may be your typical David vs. Goliath story, but it’s still a tremendously fun triumph nonetheless.

Matthew Maher, Matt Damon and Jason Bateman in Air. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The story gets told through the lens of schlubby Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, embodying a look that’s a far cry from his 2007 People magazine Sexiest Man Alive days, and relishing every bit of it), a sports marketing executive for Nike who we meet as he scouts players for his company’s flailing product line. He has a career going nowhere fast and needs to prove himself. Desperate to compete with the much more popular Adidas and Converse brands, Vaccaro faces an uphill battle when met with a dwindling budget and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), who doesn’t think they have much of a future with basketball shoes at all. Vaccaro’s fellow marketing pals, led by the wonderfully deadpan Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) don’t seem to have one good idea, until one evening, Vaccaro watches footage of a young Michael Jordan, replaying a particular shot over and over. Something about the way Jordan handles himself clues Vaccaro into the fact that he was witnessing a once in a generation player.

Viola Davis in Air. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Vaccaro springs into action willing to go all in on Jordan. He confers with fellow exec Howard White (Chris Tucker, delightful here) and decides to break some rules to get what he wants. That includes bypassing Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), and going straight to Michael Jordan’s parents, wonderfully played by real live spouses, Julius Tennon and Viola Davis. While Davis delivers a strong performance and gets to the heart of what really matters—that those who get taken advantage of, be they athletes, artists, writers, or any number or people who are not the 1%, deserve their share of the pie—for me, it’s Messina who nearly walks away with the whole film. His Falk, who spends most of his time on the phone, delivers some of the funniest and filthiest arias of anger I’ve heard since Paul Newman put on his hockey gear in Slap Shot. Matthew Maher also proves memorable as Peter Moore, the designer of the original Air Jordan prototype and who arguably came up with the name. His scenes crackle with the awe of a man who loves his own creativity.

Chris Messina in Air. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Air has that uncanny ability to maintain suspense despite the audience already knowing the outcome. The entire film has a natural quality which feels like it was made back in the 1980s, like some long lost journalistic procedural. It has this understated aesthetic thanks to Robert Richardson’s unfussy cinematography, William Goldenberg’s well-paced editing which flies by yet allows for grace notes, François Audouy’s perfectly muted production design, and especially Charles Antoinette Jones’ costume design, which hilariously nails every pleat on Damon’s khaki’s and every shade of purple on Affleck’s track suit.

As we follow Vaccaro on his journey, I started to feel something for him and the other characters. Even though this is a story of a corporation trying to stay afloat and probably screw over a young fledgling athlete in the process, it spoke to me about the dream of perfection, of talent, of Black excellence, of breaking the rules to go after what you want. Every character in this films pops and has a chance to shine. Other standouts include Marlon Wayans in a brief scene as a former coach who dispenses great advice to Vaccaro, and Affleck himself, who brings a prickly yet bohemian quirkiness to his big boss character.

If I had to gripe about anything, and I hate to because this is one funny and sweet film, it’s the fact that it has a surplus of endings and still misses out on one. Earlier in the story, Bateman’s character sets up something so emotional, I was certain it would get paid off in the end. I imagined it in my head, knowing when I saw it, I would cry. In fact, I get teary-eyed thinking about it even now. Yet, the filmmakers decided not to include it, opting instead to overplay their hand with 10 other endings. Oh well, all is forgiven when you can get a guy like me to stand up and cheer for a sports movie like Air.

By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic

Air opens theatrically on Wednesday April 5th, 2023.

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