Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
From the first frame of Air, director Ben Affleck wants you to know, without a doubt, that you are about to be transported back to America in the 1980s.
Within a brief montage – itself a prominent cinematic staple of the era – we are reminded what the land of opportunity looked like during peak consumerism. Cabbage Patch Kids, Mr. T and the A-Team, the Ghostbusters, Hulk Hogan, and Ronald “Trickle-Down Economics” Reagan. Rather than a delightful reminder of simpler times, the montage comes across as a deluge of excessive capitalism and predatory consumerism that sugarcoats a flawed era. Remarkably, the exact same thing could be said for the film itself.
Inspired by a brief segment within the ESPN/Netflix Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance, screenwriter Alex Convery attempts to recount the real-life story of how Nike recruiter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) wins over a reluctant Michael Jordan (the back of Damian Young’s head) to create the juggernaut Air Jordan brand, revolutionizing sports marketing and apparel forever. Vaccaro is supposedly, like Jordan, an unrecognized talent; as Nike’s basketball guru and client liaison, he’s failed to bear any 6-foot fruit, but he’s unafraid to bet the livelihood of everyone in his department that Jordan will be the brand of the coming decade.
No one believes in him. Not head of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman doing his best Michael Bluth impression), nor executive Howard White (a fumbling, miscast Chris Tucker), nor Nike’s neurotic hippie-CEO Phil Knight (Affleck). The audience is expected to root for Vaccaro off Damon’s sincere charm alone, since nothing he does is particularly remarkable or compelling. He believes really, really hard in Jordan, so we should do the same for him.
It becomes a race against time to convince Jordan, or more specifically Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) to sign with Nike instead of Converse or Adidas, the two other major players in the basketball shoe market. The urgency is felt, but beyond their jobs and vague inclinations of a midlife crisis for everyone involved, it’s unclear why anyone goes along with Vacarro’s plan.
That’s the major problem with Convery’s script: it’s light and fluffy, often cramming in business jargon between witty jokes, but lacks any emotional heft. For the most part, the comedy works in its favor, propelling the story forward at a fast and easy clip. One particularly crass phone call between Vaccaro and Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) is a standout moment for both actors involved. But the rare times emotions do creep in – every major player gets one juicy, dramatic scene in an effort to ground the narrative – the tonal shift feels jarring. No one suffers more from this ambiguity than Davis, whose Oscar-bait intensity chafes harshly against the breezy irreverence that surrounds her.
Affleck’s direction doesn’t fare much better, swinging between unnoticeable competence and experimental confusion. Multiple dialogue-heavy scenes rely on cinematic trickery – either handheld shaky cam or rotating really fast around the actors – to bring the energy that the script and performances are lacking.
One particular scene with Vaccaro and US Olympic basketball assistant coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) used a baffling amount of pull-focuses, often changing focus between Damon and Wayans multiple times in the same sentence. Framing feels like an afterthought, as if Affleck forgot that each shot can be a beautiful tapestry. Even his establishing shots of Nike’s HQ in Beaverton, Oregon – a gorgeous, woodsy area framed by the picturesque Mount Hood – are mundane and ugly. He instead spent his time focused on repeatedly filming products associated with the era; you can only see a guy playing Coleco handhelds so often before it becomes a nuisance.
Air is a brisk venture back in time that has a happy ending that everyone in the theater already knows: Vaccaro convinces Jordan to join Nike, Air Jordan is born, and millions of dollars are made each year for both the company and the superstar. The rich win and get richer, great. With its star-studded cast and simple narrative, Air feels like the type of feel-good, mid-budget cinema right out of 2005 that reaffirms the American ideal that capitalism works for those who are special, and you can be special too if you just buckle down and work hard.
Except, it’s not 2005 anymore. It’s 2023: companies are making record-breaking profits thanks to heavily inflated prices, a global pandemic has killed millions and irrevocably altered the way society functions, and billionaires choose to buy social media apps and fund grifters rather than address any of the increasingly apocalyptic crises. Now more than ever, capitalism should be interrogated and challenged, and yet here we are celebrating it, unabashed and without reserve.
Air at its core is about capitalism and brands, not people. It’s not about Sonny Vaccaro, whose interior life – a wife, multiple children, a gambling habit, and possible self-doubt – are never shown. It’s not about Phil Knight, Nike founder and CEO, who struggled under the pressure of answering to a board of directors and needed to reinvent himself and his brand to survive. (Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog, provides a glossy but more in-depth look at the founding of the company and the problems it faced). It’s not even about Michael Jordan, the upstart from North Carolina, or his close relationship with his mother, as Michael’s success is a pre-destined outcome with no room for fear or worry. Air is about how Nike the company schmoozed Jordan to make mountains of money together by becoming the greatest basketball clothing company in the world. No person actually matters, just the products.
Brands are the heroes of this story: they anchor nostalgia, have wants and needs, and go on an emotional arc before ending up victorious. They are not to be criticized, only praised. No room is provided for weighty discussions about the ramifications of the Air Jordan deal, the ethics of overseas production (which is off-handedly mentioned once and never returns), or even a reflection on the damaging hyper-consumerism of the 1980s. It’s entertainment, not education, a dandy way to kill two hours and walk out feeling satiated without being challenged.
Any introspection about Nike, Jordan, Vaccaro, or basketball are left for other works — Shoe Dog, The Last Dance, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Vaccaro (which Convery also worked on), and HBO’s Winning Time. Affleck and Convery tell the blandest version of the story possible, ignoring the fact that everyone involved with the deal hates one another now to instead take many creative liberties to craft something feel good that showed everyone in a fair light.
With nothing to say and no one too interested in saying it, Air is just that: air. Arid, dry, empty air. It’s enough to take you for a ride, but think about it too hard about it, and you’ll come crashing down.
Vapid and meaningless, the consumer-friendly ‘Air’ tells a revolutionary story in the blandest, slickest way possible.