' ' Cinema Romantico: Air

Monday, October 09, 2023


In “Air,” when Nike sits down to pitch Michael Jordan and his family about being their preeminent brand ambassador, they fire up a highlight video. This video, it is Marketing 101, slick, entertaining, and empty. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the shoe company’s foremost scout for basketball talent, the one who has convinced a reluctant Jordan to take this meeting in the first place, immediately senses Jordan’s family, especially his mother Deloris (Viola Davis), tuning out this video and stops it, much to the chagrin of CEO Phil Knight (Affleck). It’s ironic, given how Affleck doubles as director and yet never senses that his own movie ultimately comes across as slick, entertaining, and empty as that highlight video itself. You see it straight away in an efficient opening credit pop culture nostalgia trip, not even so much setting the scene, though it does, as function like an advertisement for 1984, even as it dazzlingly gives away the game, as if we are seeing the world through “They Live” sunglasses outfit with the wrong prescription. 

Oh, “Air” is a sheer pleasure to watch, don’t get me wrong here, just as the commercialist and jingoist 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics were a sheer pleasure to watch. The Olympics comparison is apt. Despite the geopolitics and Hollywood machinations, Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo” was structured very much like a sports movie, designed to elicit similar weepy uplift, and so it makes sense that Affleck would be so in his wheelhouse on “Air.” This is an underdog story with a sports shoe rather than a sports team, evoked in one two-faced image where a glowing neon Nike sign is framed to look an awful lot like the picture of the Hickory Huskers above the gymnasium door at the end of “Hoosiers.” Indeed, Nike might be named for the Greek goddess of victory but in 1984, it lagged far behind its competitors, an anomaly in Oregon fronted by a nouveau hippie like Knight, sans a cutthroat competitive edge which is what Sonny gives it, introduced as both a gambler and a student of game tape, who sees the young Jordan for the cutthroat competitor he is and is determined to risk it all on him, just as Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) is determined to shift the business paradigm. 

This three-pronged narrative structure goes a long way toward giving “Air” so much juice, ensuring there is always a new angle to play and meaning the movie never lags, moving forward at a pace that is not quite frenetic but just fast enough, underlined in how major characters are often introduced with intertitles, keeping us firmly committed to the narrative treadmill. And though “Air” is sculpted almost exclusively out of conversations, writer Alex Convery renders inside baseball with wit and comedy, often solid throwaway jokes, like a James Worthy-level one about Kurt Rambis. During the more business-y dialogue, meanwhile, Affleck keeps his camera roaming and quivering and editor William Goldenberg crisply cuts them, refusing to let us get bored, while for more emotional and personal moments, the camera and the cutting calms down, letting us truly absorb it. Scene after scene, and transition after transition, meanwhile, are marked by pop hits of the era, so much so that the movie has the feel of a jukebox musical, one more tune to keep you engaged (“I know that song!”), even if the curation, like Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas” when the action briefly segues to Adidas headquarters sometimes skews bleatingly obvious.

In the manner of “Air” itself, Damon’s turn both does and does not work. He evinces a love for the game that helps evince a love for his work, resulting in a likable presence that helps carry us through, even though, well, there’s just enough dirt under those figurative fingernails. He has several phone scenes with Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina), so single-focused and unlikable that the character himself says he’s destined to end up alone. Sonny, however, is portrayed the exact same way, an irony neither Damon nor the movie itself ever grasps, an incredible oversight that inadvertently exposes an overall lack of dimension preventing “Air” from finding another gear. Affleck fares better as Knight, playing an eccentric, perhaps, but also a sort of unlikely and, in turn, stressed out CEO who never feels exactly like a business genius, more like an eccentric in over his head, who in some ways knows it, and in other ways doesn’t. And while Dolores Jordan has far less characterization, Davis’s turn fills out the role anyway, simultaneously caring and commanding, effusing parental protection and control, split right down the middle. 

All these conference table dramatics suggest “Moneyball,” and while there are distinct similarities, despite the fudging of some real-life details and hints of hagiography in its presentation of mastermind Billy Beane, there was also shading to Beane, in the way the character was written and not just in how Brad Pitt played him, anguish and regret. Even more, there was tension in the plot, between science and romance, between business and romance. Such tension is weirdly absent in “Air,” rendering the whole movie [frantically searching Thesaurus for synonym of airless] insubstantial. Part of this stems from Affleck’s own hagiographic insistence on essentially making Jordan invisible onscreen (occasionally seen more than played by Damian Young), preferring to let his admittedly massive place in the culture do the work for him. The impulse is understandable, but in doing so, it makes what we already know paramount, turning Sonny and Deloris into prophets, negating so much drama and depth. Even then, however, Affleck might have made it work with a more expressionistic sensibility. Alas, that isn’t Affleck’s forte, and just as the shoe itself is mostly kept offscreen, there is no sense of how the shoe became an expression of Jordan, or how Jordan expressed himself through the shoe. Even there, Affleck turns to the historical record, literally tagging his movie with the Be Like Gatorade ad, finally dropping the facade and literally just becoming a commercial.

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