Movie review: Air breathes spiritual and sentimental purpose into an old pair of sneakers

Movie review: Air

Ben Affleck proves he’s got the confidence to don tight purple tights and face off against Matt Damon’s middle-aged muffin top in Air, the story of Nike’s unlikely bid to sign Michael Jordan in 1984.

Air

3/5

Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman

Written by Alex Convery

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Running time: 1 hr 51 mins

Rating: Restricted

Opens April 5, 2023 in theatres.

Now streaming free on Prime.

By Katherine Monk

It’s not a work of art. It’s an unapologetically commercial concoction steeped in branded navel-gazing —which is why you have to give Air its due. It nailed the subject matter in form, function and free market profit-seeking.

A narrative feature based entirely on one athlete’s embrace of a Nike basketball shoe, Air isolates the magical moment in sports history when an NBA prospect named Michael Jordan brought Nike to its knees.

The year is 1984. Orwellian prophecy loomed in the air like a bad smell, but the fires of human potential burned brightly as we solved Rubik’s cube, embraced Cabbage Patch Kids and watched the A-Team save the U.S.A in every single episode. Lady Diana was a new mother and Doonesbury’s politically salient panels gave birth to progressive, lefty cool.

The era was as confusing as it was intoxicating. Yet, full credit goes to director and star Ben Affleck for providing a five-minute montage offering full ‘80s immersion in the opening frames. Featuring a soundtrack that plays to the outsider artists such as The Violent Femmes and Run DMC  instead of the sappy pop divas of the day, Air clearly understands the binary of the moment.

On one side of the mall-centric culture war was Ronald Reagan, corporate conservatism and the unchallenged concept of American exceptionalism. On the other lay a new conviction in the power of diversity, the divine potential of the individual and an idealistic desire for social change.

The era was as confusing as it was intoxicating. Yet, full credit goes to director and star Ben Affleck for providing a five-minute montage offering full ‘80s immersion in the opening frames. Featuring a soundtrack that plays to the outsider artists such as The Violent Femmes and Run DMC  instead of the sappy pop divas of the day, Air clearly understands the binary of the moment.

America, it seems, is always wrestling with these two identities — and Air brings them both to the screen via the ultimate American symbol: Sneakers, Kicks, Running Shoes.

For Nike chairman and founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), basketball is an afterthought for the company. Happy to make millions on serving the growing market of runners and joggers with his waffle soles, Knight just wants to keep up with the competition when it comes to endorsements.

He has no desire to sign Michael Jordan when the movie begins. Sure, everyone knows the number one draft pick is going to become a legend, but he’s so well-known, he’s considered out of reach for the likes of Nike.

Adidas and Converse are the brands that outfit the NBA superstars, and they have the money and the market credibility to go after the biggest names in the game. For Nike’s head of basketball sponsorships, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), it’s not just the lack of available cash that makes acquiring Jordan such a challenge. It’s the lack of faith coming from his own boss and friend, Phil Knight, that emerges as the film’s thematic twist.

Damon’s character thinks he can win over Jordan by giving him full agency over the product that will bear his name. But for corporate types, especially Knight, handing over so much control is inconceivable. It would be revolutionary to offer Jordan a percentage of every Air Jordan shoe sold. There’s no way the board of directors would agree.

It’s a jump ball between Damon’s athlete-first idea, and Knight’s commitment to the bottom line. In thematic terms, it’s creativity versus greed, the individual versus the uniformed masses, new idealism versus old dogma.

Symbolically, Nike becomes a vessel of the American ethos: Should it stand by its founding ideals of autonomy and individual empowerment, or should it submit to corporate expectation and do what everyone else does?

It’s a jump ball between Damon’s athlete-first idea, and Knight’s commitment to the bottom line. In thematic terms, it’s creativity versus greed, the individual versus the uniformed masses, new idealism versus old dogma.

Damon’s character is constantly nudging his old buddy to remember what it felt like at the beginning of the corporate journey. Nike was the outsider, the upstart, the company that didn’t mind breaking the rules and reframing the paradigm. In short, it was a lot like a young United States of America, breaking new ground on the world stage with big dreams of recreating the world as a more people-friendly place.

Phil Knight was a populist crusader in purple shorts, but success made him afraid of losing, and that same fear extinguished the fire that ignited the company’s financial rockets in the first place. For the Nike founder, and his pushy friend with the paunch, it’s nothing less than a moment of existential reckoning: Be true to the original vision of difference or succumb to the forces of sameness.

It’s a simple and easy-to-understand metaphor that director Affleck renders on the big screen through a period beige palette and the silent, brotherly dynamic between him and his real life buddy Matt Damon. The two have a silent chemistry that allows them to navigate the underground labyrinth of the masculine condition with a certain bravado.

In this instance, it’s Affleck’s comfort in tight purple spandex facing off against Damon’s contentedness with his middle-aged muffin top. Who has the manly confidence and thespian commitment to pull it off, and put it on?

Why both of them, of course. While Air doesn’t afford any grand drama, or even a long look at Michael Jordan’s magical abilities on the court, the movie does allow Damon and Affleck to face off as idealogical constructs and opposing views of the American Dream.

The results are mixed because the story is emotionally thin and speaks more to money than feelings. Yet, Air still nails the moment when sports marketing changed for good, and athletes were no longer considered slaves to corporate contracts, but individuals with full autonomy over their likeness, name and financial future.

Indeed, Air is the story of America — made small enough to fit inside a shoebox.

 

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, April 5, 2023

-30-

Review: Air

User Rating

2 (5 Votes)

Summary

3Score

Ben Affleck directs this little beige nugget of history when an upstart sneaker company named Nike went out to sign the most promising basketball rookie of all time: Michael Jordan. Thanks to some inspired production design that takes us straight back to the smoked glass and brass of 1984, the movie nails a specific moment. Symbolically, Nike becomes a vessel of the American ethos: Should it stand by its founding ideals of autonomy and individual empowerment, or should it submit to corporate expectation and do what everyone else does? -- Katherine Monk

No Replies to "Movie review: Air breathes spiritual and sentimental purpose into an old pair of sneakers"

    Ex-Press Yourself... and leave a reply