Just a few weeks ago I introduced my review for Tetris by stating how 2023 is the year for corporate origin stories. There’s a cynical feeling I get about seeing multi-billion dollar conglomerates getting the underdog inspirational treatment, especially after several decades of them seeping into the art of filmmaking through merchandising, promotions, and anything else that makes money. In full transparency, I am also part of this problem as I buy something from Criterion every time there’s a sale and am typing this specific review in a room with walls covered in movie posters. But I digress.
Air is the reason I had that exact cynical feeling, as it’s essentially the most expensive commercial for Nike and Michael Jordan. I wouldn’t be shocked if it's already playing on a loop in one of their corporate waiting rooms, or used by their endorsement teams when recruiting new athletes. This is also a movie where the already known outcome is that these people make billions of dollars, all while slightly admitting that the shoes that rake in the dough come from Asian sweatshops.
And yet, in one of the truest examples of how filmmaking is never a rigid formula, the movie really works as both a historical retelling and as entertainment.
Lest we forget, Ben Affleck is a damn good director, much better than the anonymous bomb that his most recent movie Live By Night would make him out to be. Air is just another reminder of how it was downright criminal for him not to be nominated for Best Director for Argo (he won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, BAFTA, and DGA awards for Christ's sake!), even though it most likely paved the way for inspired nominations like Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Michael Haneke (Amour). This is the first Affleck film to not be a crime thriller, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to imbue those sensibilities here. Characters race against the clock, with the camera often following right behind them, revolving in circles as they make a brief stop, only for things to continue in motion.
The script comes from first-time writer Alex Convery, which makes sense as much of it has that same amount of unrefined energy you would find in an NBA rookie like Jordan. Names are dropped left and right (John Stockton! Charles Barkley! Clyde Drexler!), and all-too-brief snippets of pop hits play between scenes as if doing those two things is enough to settle us into this 1980s setting. A lot of moments are overemphasized or a bit corny, as if each one of them was made to be packaged into the trailer.
But the incredible cast is more than ready to make gold out of what’s given to them. With this following Ford v Ferrari and The Last Duel, Matt Damon finds himself on a hot streak. He absolutely nails a monologue near the end about the rise and fall of deified athletes. Viola Davis is Oscar-worthy as Jordan’s mother Deloris, whom the athlete credits for making him into the champion he is today. She commands respect in every scene, with her belief in her son being almost more potent than actually seeing him play.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! You’ve also got Chris Tucker (Howard White, Player Relations), Jason Bateman (Rob Strasser, Marketing), (Affleck (Phil Knight, CEO), and Chris Messina (David Falk, Jordan’s agent) bringing their A-game.
Air is the cinematic equivalent of the final moments of an NBA game. Not every play goes as perfectly as it was drawn up, and there are a lot of mistakes that could have been ironed out in practice. But the sheer athleticism of the players/actors is something to marvel at. And when they take their shots, they make them count. Because both they and we know that when the ball goes through the hoop, and those feelings of victory come striding to the surface, everything that came before that ceases to matter.