‘Air’ Review: Ben Affleck’s Overeager Love Song to Nike Succeeds More Than It Doesn’t

Matt Damon and Viola Davis fight through the empty calories of a non-stop '80s soundtrack — and the absence of Michael Jordan from a story that has him at its center — in this tale of feel-good capitalism.

 

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Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro (l) and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in ‘Air.’ Courtesy of Prime

There was a problem at the press screening where I saw Air, an impatient and overeager attempt at a capitalist love song by director Ben Affleck. There were a couple of them, actually.


AIR ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Alex Convery
Starring: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Matthew Maher, Marlon Wayans
Running time: 112 mins.


The first was a big one and involved bad projection, with a large chunk of the bottom of the movie image cut off from the giant screen at an AMC theater at the Grove, a mall in mid-city Los Angeles. 

Faulty projection at theater chains like this one has recently reached epidemic levels, a particular concern at a time when studios are desperate to get a national audience that has largely abandoned the movie theater experience for the stress-free convenience of streaming. When Air opens April 5 it will only be available in theaters, so if you want to see the heavily marketed Amazon Studios release, you will have to cross your fingers and hope your luck is better than mine. 

The second involved the woman next to me, who whipped out her brightly lit iPhone and used a Google app to translate snippets of the film’s dialogue into written Italian. 

While she only did this for scenes featuring Chris Tucker—who played Howard White, one of the Nike executives central to the signing of Michael Jordan—it was often enough to be distracting. Being that this showing was taking place two weeks before the movie’s release, you would have figured that someone would have been keeping an eye out for this kind of nefarious behavior, but the woman was never approached, nor did she make the slightest attempt to hide what she was doing or dim a screen that glowed as bright as a Coleman lantern. 

The conditions in which I saw the film were more representative of the fraught moment we are currently living through than the film itself was emblematic of the period it is so desperate to recreate on screen, the go-go ‘80s of Reagan’s America. In showing how Nike, an Oregon-based running shoe company that, at the time, was little more than an afterthought in the basketball market, changed the sneaker game forever by not only building a shoe brand around a single player, but also giving that player a small share of the profits of every pair of shoes they sold, Air tells the story of one the few examples from that time of corporate uplift, rather than just exploitation.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in ‘Air.’ Courtesy of Prime

That the film succeeds in selling its tale of feel-good capitalism more than it doesn’t is due to snappy, propulsive direction from Affleck—who cast himself in the plum role of Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike—and an amiable lead performance from his long-ago co-conspirator Matt Damon as Nike’s basketball guru Sonny Vacarro. That the film displays a soul comes, unsurprisingly, in the form of Viola Davis, who has taken Meryl Streep’s place as moviedom’s most revered and commanding presence. The Woman King star provides the often-frenetic film its only moments of calm as Deloris Jordan, the mother whose almost supernatural foresight of her son’s future value provides the film with moments of true heroism.    

While Davis’s Deloris is criminally underused in the film, at least she’s in it, so she has that on the character of her son. 

Michael Jordan is almost entirely absent from Air, excluding brief moments when he is shown from the back or seen distractedly perusing the Nike conference room like a bored cat. Affleck perhaps wisely concluded that seeing a mere mortal portray competitive athletics’ all-time greatest participant would break the spell of his movie, but the decision imparts his film with the scattered energy of a man spending two hours looking for his car keys.     

Chris Tucker as Howard White in ‘Air.’ Courtesy of Prime

As he has shown in other directorial efforts—most especially 2007’s Gone Baby Gone—Affleck has a real knack for both building narrative momentum and attenuating a film’s emotions until they ascend into a satisfying catharsis. 

This time though, he derives much of his movie’s verve from empty calories: constant needle drops of what seems like every pop tune of the era (the section when we are waiting to find out which sneaker company Jordan will sign with is too obviously accentuated with Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”) and humor that relies heavily on the audience knowing the future. (“No one’s going to watch Charles Barkley on television,” barks one clueless exec.)      

Thank goodness for Damon, who ably carries Air’s water with a perfectly blended mix of the lumpy, glad-handing desperation that made 2009’s The Informant! such a hoot and the fragile confidence that worked equally well in 2019’s Ford v Ferrari. Two favorite actors of Affleck, Chris Messina and Matthew Maher, who respectively play Jordan’s foul-mouthed agent and a shoe design genius working in Nike’s basement, shine in a generally excellent ensemble. But Affleck stumbles by casting himself as the mercurial, Zen-quoting Knight, a part that needs an actor to melt into it, the way John Goodman did as John Chambers in Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo.  

The day after my screening, two Amazon publicists emailed to offer a quickly expiring link to Air, so I could watch it again under the presumably more ideal circumstances of my own home. I declined; while it is not a bad film, I did not feel compelled to watch it again, at least not immediately. Plus, if the same twin catastrophes that befell my showing occur at yours—something not altogether unlikely given our current era of flawed exhibition—you will not be afforded a similar luxury. 

Sometimes moviegoing, like sports and business, is little more than a game of chance. 


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Air’ Review: Ben Affleck’s Overeager Love Song to Nike Succeeds More Than It Doesn’t