starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis
written by Alex Convery
directed by Ben Affleck
by Walter Chaw The irony of a film celebrating the taking of chances being so absolutely afraid to take any chances is so conspicuous it feels a little like bullying to point it out, but here goes: Ben Affleck's Air is the flabby, out-of-shape version of Moneyball, aspiring only to appease the narcissists it essays and the billion-dollar corporations with which they have developed disturbing symbiotic relationships. It's not boring, exactly, though it is like that story your grandfather has told you a dozen times already: you listen patiently for the climax you know is coming in order to time your surprise and delight appropriately. Some movies in this vein, like Miracle, are pretty good. Others, like Hoosiers, are pretty awful. All of them are watchable pabulum, pre-chewed and partially digested. It goes down without much swallowing and goes out without much noise--and every six months, there's another one. Interviews with Affleck and his muse Matt Damon have found them breathlessly recounting how scripter Alex Convery was watching an ESPN "30 on 30" documentary when he had the "eureka" that the story of Nike guy Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) would "make a great movie!" An uncredited rewrite by Affleck/Damon incorporated notes from roundball legend Michael Jordan hissownself, elevating the roles his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis, whom Jordan cast), and Olympics coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) played in Jordan's decision to sign a sponsorship deal with Nike. Et voilà! Not a "great movie," let's say, but definitely a movie.
High-stakes roller Sonny, the head of Nike's struggling basketball division, wants to spend his entire $250,000 budget courting #3 pick Michael Jordan from North Carolina on the basis of a game in which Sonny recognizes Jordan's greatness. Nobody else sees it--not Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), who is a barefooted weirdo, and certainly not the strawman everyman 7-Eleven clerk (Asanté Deshon) who declares the 6'5" Jordan to be "too short" to be effective in the NBA. Once the dust settles with a couple of chyrons informing us of the multiple billions Nike has made on their investment, there's something unseemly about returning to Mr. 7-Eleven Clerk--still stuck in his service-industry job selling refreshments and magazines to dudes who condescend to him--just to dunk on him one more time. I guess that's the main takeaway of Air, that these already-wealthy men engaged in the exploitation of young athletes for personal gain are somehow special for taking a flier on a kid who happens to be a generational, transcendent pop-cultural phenomenon. We learn Michael earns around $400 million annually in "passive" income from the sale of his branded shoe line, but the rest of Air makes a big deal out of Nike, again, being a multi-billion-dollar corporation that is now generating several times that amount by putting this guy's name on its sweat-shopped, mass-produced, faux-limited widgets. Air doesn't, in other words, know what it's about. If it did, surely no one involved would make a movie valorizing a roomful of white CEOs making an impossible fortune off some Black kid.
In short, Air is Get Out where the white people are the heroes. Sonny has a hunch and flies out to North Carolina in person to convince Deloris Jordan to take a meeting with Nike. He persuades her by being homey and self-deprecating. None of this really happened but was invented to beef up Viola Davis's screentime and make it worth her while. Mike wanted it beefed up, too, because, in addition to being unquestionably one of the two or three best players to ever put on the jersey, he is a master of self-mythology. Sonny's Big Idea is to enlist the player at the design stage and name the product after him. He proposes this upon seeing tennis legend and activist Arthur Ashe schlep his signature line of tennis racquets on television. Let me slow it down: Sonny gets the idea of how to convince Mike to let his company exploit him for cash from a legendary Black athlete's attempts to live off his good name and reputation. There's a speech later on where Sonny tells Deloris the world is an unfair place rigged against poor folks like her and her gifted son, and that sometimes pretty good is the best you can hope for, setting up the climax in which Mike changes the parameters of the "game" and snags a bigger share than anyone ever has before. The applause line in Air is when Nike is unusually generous to one of the athletes in its stable. None would be forgiven if Air were otherwise good, but at least it would have otherwise been good. Instead, it's a lot of period-specific needle-drops (conspicuously more prestigious and expensive than product like this can usually afford) and facile expository storytelling mainly invested in dragging this tired jalopy across the finish line. Anyway, I now have that "Be Like Mike" song earwormed into my skull. Thanks a pantload, Affleck.