AIR: Courting a Legend Movie Review
Ben Affleck doesn't miss when shooting from the director's chair, even when he's shooting "Air".
By Charles Basa
Air is a movie about courting a legend, and it’s also a movie that successfully courts its audience. Many may surmise that the film is targeted to a niche: the sneakerheads, footwear aficionados, and the basketball community (or, we dare say the very people that make up the traffic on the SNKRDUNK App).
But it isn’t, it’s a dramatization akin to The Social Network or Moneyball. Enjoyable for the Nike loyalists who’ve read Shoe Dog (by Nike co-founder Phil Knight) like a manifesto, and for the spouse dragged into the cinema who couldn’t care less about film, sports, or shoes.
There was a time the Nike behemoth today was more a “slow, fat, stalking horse”. A time before there was a ‘Michael Jordan’ or ‘LeBron James’ of anything. A time when adidas and Converse were the Kendrick Lamar and Drake of the athletic apparel market.
That time was 1984. The NBA Finals was still on tape delay; Nike’s basketball division was on the verge of shutting down; Michael Jordan, though already a superstar by the time he entered the league, was still touted as untested. A polarizing figure still, but more so divisive.
As far as 1984 goes—the film opens with a montage that establishes the zeitgeist à la “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. Enter Sonny Vaccarro, a Nike executive played by Matt Damon at the betting parlor. A subtle yet crucial subtext that establishes his proclivities for risk-taking. A trait that essentially drives the entire story, and in part, history as we will come to know it. He may have been in the periphery in the biographies of greater men, but his story receives all its overdue importance in a film a little less than two hours.
But it’s not just his story, it’s not just Phil Knight, Michael Jordan, or Nike’s. It’s about the shoes—one that would birth a culture, transform an entire industry, business, and lives. Yet, it’s a story about the aforementioned as much as it is about the human qualities like persistence, self-belief, and sacrifice. A story told impeccably by Ben Affleck, who has a scoring record shooting from behind the camera much like his famous subject on the basketball court.
A story brought to life by the fine work of veterans like Jason Bateman who portrays Nike’s marketing director Rob Strasser; Chris Tucker as Howard White, a field executive and now Jordan Brand’s Vice President; and the quintessential thespian, Viola Davis who plays Jordan’s mother, Deloris. Lest we forget, writer Alex Convery (who surprisingly only has Air as his credit on IMDb).
In tandem with Ben Affleck’s directorial skills and the performance of the A-list cast, the screenplay comes alive not as a boardroom drama filled with business lexicon and esoteric Jordan lore, but as one that inspires, educates, and humors the human spirit.
The whole crew exercises their due diligence in their research, evident in the plethora of homages. More a fan service, easter eggs to delight the true blue amongst the colorful crowd in the theater. Like the scene that introduces Matthew Maher’s Peter Moore—the designer of the Air Jordan 1—skating to work, alluding to the skateboarding pedigree that would follow his brainchild in the future. Sneakerheads should just sit together during the movie so they don’t have to look too far to share an ‘if you know, you know’ moment.
The period-piece-perfect set design, props and costume is properly immersive, especially with the last one. In a sea of shirts and trousers, Ben Affleck’s Phil Knight will walk into frame in a vibrant tracksuit that highlights the CEO’s eccentricities—his half boardroom warrior, half enlightened guru persona; more apropos to the locker room tunnel turned ‘fashion runway’ in today’s NBA games.
His costumes may catch your attention, though it’s the scenes that leave an impression. Particularly where Viola Davis is involved—aptly, even if her EGOT means the role is more a walk in a park than a day at the office. It’s the only request Jordan makes before giving his blessing to the film: that Davis play his mother.
Her presence is felt from the moment she’s introduced. Men make up most of the characters, yet it’s the sole matriarch that makes the movie. Since the film began Sonny has been driving the entire energy of the plot, until Deloris’ entrance. After Sonny goes rogue and goes to the Jordan residence against professional advice and business etiquette. She invites him to sit at the backyard and the power immediately switches hands from his to hers.
It’s not verbatim but the conversation that takes place is momentous. In fact, every scene with Deloris is. “It won’t be the NBA promoting my son, it will be the other way around.” ‘Nuff said.
There are plenty of quotables spoken by the rest of the cast. Some of the best belonging to Peter Moore. He’s not a central character in the film relative to his minutes on screen. But he was in the real events that inspired it, and that’s acknowledged with every appearance dictating a turning point in the story; like the majestic reveal of the legendary Air Jordan 1 High.
The business of sports has plenty of fun and games as should a film about it. There’re plenty of comedic moments for the audience to breathe in between every high-octane scene seething from the dialogue. The humor isn’t always spoken or acted out however, demonstrated in the juxtaposition created in keeping a pre-His Airness Michael Jordan an enigma.
As seen (or not) in the trailer, it’s funny how witty and adamant the film was in keeping his face obscure. A craftiness in the mise-en-scène. A character coming to block the camera’s line of sight before his face comes into view, a quick back turn, etc. In doing this, it inadvertently heightened Jordan’s looming presence in the film. God-like, almost. Just as he in real life. He may not be on the basketball court anymore, but his spirit is still felt.
There are no sweeping orchestras to direct the mood (save for one). There are plenty of typically ’80s digital synthesizers and saxophones to keep you immersed like actual ’80s films did your parents. In addition to the set pieces, the cinematography is kept period-accurate too creating a film that could be mistaken to be of the same era as The Terminator—the first one, of course.
It’s a time capsule, a history lesson, a trip down memory lane. A DeLorean of a film that will transport you to Oregon in 1984. Enjoy it anyway even though we know how it ends: Michael Jordan signs with adidas, so now we have the classic Nike Stockton 10.
Kidding. Think of your favorite sneaker, there’s probably a Jumpman on it.
Thank you to Warner Bros. Singapore for inviting SNKRDUNK to the special screening of AIR. The film is out now in cinemas. Enjoy!
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Singapore