There is one pernicious caveat that Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort will be subjected to and is all but required to meet in order for some to find some iota of enjoyment from its premise. The task set before the frustratingly Google-resistant Air, a dramatization of the tense boardroom deals which led to a burgeoning star basketball player to sign an exclusive licensing deal with the still emerging Nike company and revolutionize sports marketing, is whether or not Affleck was able to beat the corporate propaganda allegations.
For a film where the schlubby executives of a now billion-dollar international conglomerate are ostensibly cast in the role of the underdog heroes who struggle nobly to develop the product and business deal that earned them all their present capital power, even the least cynical of audiences would see that as a bit of a hard sell. Luckily, through Affleck’s subtly subversive direction and a cast of consummate professionals picking up on his critical wavelength, Air is able to elevate story material that could have been nothing more than an extended commercial for Air Jordan sneakers in less capable hands…mostly…sort of?
For a film like Air to even exist obviously required the extensive approval of Nike and the employees it portrays, who would primarily be looking out for their corporate interests and positive brand image above any form of compelling or disruptive dramatic license with the story of how Michael Jordan became the face of Nike. Set in 1984 during a “tumultuous” stint in the company’s history, post going public but still playing third fiddle to competition Adidas and Converse when it comes to the basketball market, the chosen narrative for the film unfortunately cannot help but flatter this billion-dollar corporation like it is some scrappy up-and-comer to root for.
The film follows basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) as he pushes against the wishes of CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) and marketing exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and attempts to sign the heavily courted rookie all-star Michael Jordan as their new spokesperson before the failing basketball shoe division is shuttered. In a transposing of the sports film structure to the executive boardroom à la Moneyball, Nike is presented by Alex Convery’s script as the down-on-its-luck contender who’s unafraid to think outside the box and, unlike its corporate, greed-obsessed competition, believed in something beyond maximizing profit when they orchestrated the most lucrative sponsorship deal in the history of basketball.
Even if some of the more egregious examples of brand promotion that Air participates in were excised — several deliberate, lingering shots of Nike products; close-up inserts of Nike’s noble corporate codes of conduct; an aggrandizing characterization of Phil Knight as a hippie corporate guru who waxes poetic about how he “started this company out of the back of his car” and never lost that humble spirit — the film on face value still reads as the best public relations outreach the Nike corporation could have ever hoped for. And yet, Air is somehow much more entertaining and surprisingly seditious with this story than it has any right to be.
Perhaps it is due to Convery’s tightly paced script or Affleck’s snappy direction, which grant a sense of mounting tension and visual dynamism to a film consisting mostly of repeating scenes of out-of-shape, white executives either talking on phones or talking to each other in boardrooms. Convery’s script fills these execs’ mouths with sharp, biting, often-hilarious lines about the costs of doing business in an increasingly vapid and consumerist decade, while Affleck’s camera underlines each conversation with an absorbing sense of flow and dramatic weight, be it through the infectious rhythm of the editing or his refusing to allow dialogue scenes to remain static. Through their efforts, a scene of Damon’s Vaccaro getting ruthlessly chewed out over the phone by Jordan’s embittered agent, David Falk (an almost campily over-the-top Chris Messina), for going over his head can feel enthralling despite the simple back-and-forth staging.
And speaking of the acting on display, what Air does exceptionally well to dull the perceptions of being Nike propaganda is to be a film built primarily on the foundation of its many stellar performances. Serving as a showcase for its cast, the talky nature of its premise means Air had no choice but to be carried by them and, across the board, everybody was prepared to do that heavy lifting with affable chemistry.
Damon’s established charms being more subdued and pointed as the spiraling Vaccaro, Affleck’s clueless Knight being a fruitful punchline on the thinly veiled egotism of CEOs, Viola Davis returning to a role she has perfected through her career (the steadfast maternal figure) and giving the film its elusive emotional core: everybody on the cast astounds with how they play the material, finding the right moments to play up the absurdity of the very premise or to paint these corporate stand-ins of Nike as real human beings.
This includes the contrast between Matthew Maher playing Air Jordan designer Peter Moore like some kind of sagely “shoe wizard” cowering in the bowels of the Nike building and Chris Tucker playing head of Nike’s basketball division as a past-his-prime former player adjusting to his corporate career with embittered humor. The absence of Michael Jordan as a character at all in the film stands out as a strange omission, but through the work of the presiding ensemble, they carve out a space for the larger-than-life icon to be felt through their exchanges about him and through him.
The film overall crackles with an unexpected energy that, despite the obviously unignorable corporate backing, I am hesitant to cast as entirely in service of brand promotion. Affleck, to his credit, does not allow his film to come across as uncritical, unchecked Nike propaganda and manages to sneak in some comparably subversive perspective, given the assignment at hand. Several montages are mixed into the film that harp on the explosion of consumerism during the 1980s and the manner in which athletes are gradually being dehumanized as they are perceived as extensions of the products by which they are represented.
While always frustratingly stopping short of just coming out and saying it or saying anything directly critical of its corporate backer, Air routinely flirts with painting this scenario, which directly led to Nike’s ascension to global-conglomerate status with less-than-glowing reverence. It’s hard not to think Affleck and Convery were making a point when, during the required cliché of the “where are they now” montage, the only detail offered about Phil Knight is the relatively paltry amount of his astronomical wealth he has donated to charity.
To be generous, ideologically Air exists somewhere in the middle ground between an 112-minute commercial for Air Jordans and a Marxist critique of corporate interest in professional athletics. Messy fence-sitting aside, Air is a tremendously entertaining film that takes the benign minutia of boardroom politicking and makes it equally hilarious and dramatic. Outside of those (undoubtedly mandated) moments that grant grating heroic gravitas to executives looking to line their pockets, the film really brings you into the moment and mines the story for every laugh and emotional twist it is probably worth.