Air (2023)

On paper, a movie like Air should not exist. After all, who would be interested in how Michael Jordan’s iconic Nike shoe was invented? This is especially the case if you consider that at least theoretically a story like this should include Michael Jordan as well, in which case you might want to ask why you would want to focus the movie on the shoe and not on the foot that stepped in it? Isn’t Michael Jordan’s story intrinsically more compelling than the story of his shoe?  

It is, and that’s the primary problem this movie decided to solve by removing Michael Jordan from the equation altogether and assumed that we can just get our Michael Jordan story elsewhere. In fact, Netflix’s The Last Dance documentary series is a great place to do just that. Consequently, by all but excising the greatest athlete that’s ever lived from a story about a shoe made for that athlete, the filmmakers were given permission to focus on the little people who would be nothing more than extras loitering in the background of a Michael Jordan biopic.  

Moreover, how do you make a story like this worth watching? Again, any typical biopic narrative doesn’t necessarily apply here because Nike was already a massive company with a sturdy cultural footprint. What it didn’t have was just a marked presence in the NBA endorsement sphere, so it would be quite a challenge to see this movie as a rendition of a classic underdog story where a scruffy little startup operating from a shed and driven by a pair of maniacs who gambled their livelihoods on a moonshot project like whisking the attention of an up-and-coming star athlete. They were already a massive, listed corporation with an operating budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. So, assuming a bird’s eye view of the story, you could easily dismiss it as uncinematic.  

Which is where the challenge is that Ben Affleck (who directed the movie) and Alex Convery (who wrote it) picked up like that proverbial gauntlet. ‘Game on’, they said and proceeded to turn an anti-biopic into what essentially ended up being the feel-good experience of this Spring. They got on the phone with Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina and Viola Davis and concocted a movie that truly lives up to the stranger-than-fiction idea that drove its creation.  

Long story short, Air centres its narrative around Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike’s talent scout whose job is to fish out up-and-coming talent coming out of the NBA draft, convince them to endorse Nike by wearing their shoes and do it within a miniscule budget afforded to him by Nike’s CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck). Without going into too much detail, Sonny sees something unique in young Michael Jordan and he embarks on a mission to convince his bosses, Jordan’s resolute mother and the future star athlete himself to sign a contract with Nike instead of literally anybody else. Cue a medley of 80s rock anthems interspersed with Tangerine Dream-like inserts and off we go to the races.  

You must admit, the synopsis reads kind of dull, doesn’t it? You could honestly assume it is a treatment for a biopic parody or a special episode of Family Guy where Peter Griffin invents a shoe.  

But it’s not. Air is anything but dull. It is a sprightly and resplendent story that envelops the viewer with its Scorsese-esque scale and buys their interest with its Paul Thomas Anderson-like appeal. It’s a swirling ode to the 80s that makes great use of the culture of the time, as though it was actively attempting to fashion itself – at least as far as the energy and enthusiasm of the movie are concerned – after Boogie Nights and Casino. And I sincerely believe the guys made it happen. They donned their wigs, wore their tracksuits and drove their period-accurate cars with such conviction that they traversed the thin line between a bros-in-wigs-make-a-period-movie energy of American Hustle and faked it till they made it. They pranced in front of the roaming steadicam, spat their lungs out into old-fashioned phone receivers and perorated with reckless abandon because they knew deep down that if they believed, the viewer would believe it too. As aresult, the movie is just a pleasure to watch. Not despite, but rather because its premise is so outlandishly ridiculous and because its execution flies so close to the Sun. 

Perhaps the key to understanding why Air works so profoundly lies in the very simple decision to never show Michael Jordan’s face and almost always to treat him as though he was a deity, which to some people is exactly how he should be treated, by the way. By not having you acclimate to a face of a known actor posing as Jordan, Affleck and his merry band of misfits successfully injected a modicum of realism into this frankly outrageous idea of following a small division in a big shoe company as they try to make some money. They made Jordan real by not showing him. And we all know that the real Jordan is just something else. He is an icon.  

Therefore, by conjuring even a fraction of this icon’s presence using the simplest spells in the movie magic spell book, Air made its central players icon-adjacent. They made Knight and Vaccaro and all their other friends and collaborators all the more real and grounded, And that’s good enough to spin a whole darn narrative around it and make the product look like Boogie Nights meets The Mighty Ducks. Suddenly, Damon’s overblown resolve no longer looks ridiculous. His speech at the end with Viola Davis and whoever-who-plays-Jordan’s-back in the room feels elevated and scene-appropriate. Ben Affleck’s aloofness looks inspired. And Jason Bateman’s hair looks inoffensive. It just works. I don’t know how but it just does.  

Consequently, Air makes for a fantastically digestible piece of entertainment that lures you with its period-accurate jazziness and reels you in with the filmmakers’ seriousness about executing on a story that wouldn’t be a bad foundation for Adam McKay to make fun of in an out-and-out satire. It’s two hours of good fun that works both as a serious attempt at a biopic and a parody thereof, but even in making fun of itself it always somehow remains seriously committed to the idea of being serious, if that makes any sense. Affleck’s directorial hand distinctly inspired by Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme provides a platform for the viewer immersion in this bubbly narrative, while all the actors – without exception – make sure they understand the assignment and turn in performances that are just about goofy enough to touch the threshold of parody and serious enough to imbue the movie with the very earnestness that carries it into the viewers’ hearts.  

What else is there to say? Air might not be the best movie of the year and it might not even aspire to have anything remotely life-changing to say about the human condition or the piece of history it brushes shoulders with. However, this biopic about people who’d never get to have a biopic under normal circumstances – you know, guys with jobs instead of careers – is somehow life-affirming, uplifting, funny and light-hearted enough to be endorsed as the movie to watch together with your whole family and then tell your kid that not everyone gets to be as great as Michael Jordan. But with a lot of hard work and a pinch of good luck, you might have your moment of greatness, too. And maybe, just maybe, if this moment is wacky enough, one day Ben Affleck is going to make Boogie Nights about it. Lord knows, he has the knack for it and between Argo and Air, he has the body of evidence to back up the claim he is the guy to get your stranger-than-fiction movie right. 

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