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HomeIndustry SectorFilmAir Review: Ben Affleck Tries to Take Flight With Decent Retelling of...

Air Review: Ben Affleck Tries to Take Flight With Decent Retelling of Air Jordan Deal

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As a director, Ben Affleck has focused his career on two types of movies — the gripping crime dramas that were his earliest efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and the personal stories of quirky characters he apparently finds interesting. His latest outing behind the camera, Air, is of the latter kind, as it tells the story of how underdog shoe company Nike landed an incredibly lucrative deal with future NBA star Michael Jordan, and though the film fires on many cylinders, it ultimately stumbles on its own predictability, sacrificing whatever heart it had built in the process.

Air is purportedly about Nike’s deal with Jordan, but it’s actually about the company’s loyal ad exec Sonny Vaccaro, a misunderstood, middle-aged man who has a passion for the sport and lacks the respect of most around him. Matt Damon, Affleck’s longtime buddy and collaborator, plays Vaccaro, and acts well, just like everything else he’s in.

Vaccaro argues to Nike founder Phil Knight (Affleck) that the company should go for broke with its ad budget because he has observed hours of tape on Jordan and he’s convinced that #23 out of UNC is going to be the biggest superstar to ever grace the court. Vaccaro’s direct boss, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) is supportive of the potential deal, but the two have to deal with the young star’s agent, played by a greasy Chris Messina, and most importantly, with Jordan’s mother, Deloris (a well-cast Viola Davis). The main competition to sign Jordan is Converse, which is run by a dysfunctional family, and the slightly-off Germans running Adidas. They all have more money and credibility than Nike, but we all know how the film ends.

Naturally, knowing the outcome of a movie is not by itself ruinous. The beauty can be in the journey, and great movies tell familiar stories in inspiring or impressive ways. Think of how Christopher Nolan handled Dunkirk or even how Affleck himself told the story behind Argo. In Air, thanks to a script by Alex Convery, Affleck tells a taut, interesting, and at times even compelling story, however, most of the characters are caricatures of the tropes they represent, such as the self-doubting ad exec, the self-confident sports agent, and the self-effacing company owner. But this, too, does not matter, particularly behind the strength of the undeniable acting talent that Affleck has amassed here, all of whom put on a clinic together, to the point where this could easily win the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast.

Air movie
Matthew Maher, Matt Damon, and Jason Bateman in Air/Amazon Studios

Air stumbles, though, when it no longer can serve the audience reasons to care about the characters. In trying hard to make the movie not about Jordan, Affleck bends over backward — with a helpful assist from Editor William Goldenberg and Cinematographer Robert Richardson — to avoid ever showing the face of the actor playing the basketball star. This is an odd approach that eventually becomes a distraction and has the opposite effect than the one intended. The obvious answer would have been to make the movie less about Vaccaro and more it more about Deloris, or to treat the Jordan issue as an afterthought rather than play this game with the audience where they’re searching the frame for Jordan’s hidden face. By letting the tail wag the dog, Affleck’s gimmick nearly swallows the entire proceeding.

One wonders why Affleck went to these lengths in the first place. The story of this ad deal is fascinating in its own right, but letting it flow more naturally without such a strong directorial hand would have made it a bit more compelling. Instead, Affleck tries hard to insert eccentricities, highlight one-liners, and more than anything else, elicit a lot of sympathy for Vaccaro. It is clear that Affleck finds those sorts of “misunderstood” personages compelling, those who aren’t the cool kids, and have to struggle to be accepted, heard, or understood. But, does Affleck identify with these oddballs, like he seems to have since the days of Good Will Hunting? It seems hard to swallow given his public profile. But whatever Affleck’s personal reasons may be for caring so deeply about characters like Vaccaro, those reasons aren’t the audience’s, and considering that you know exactly how everything is going to play out, Affleck wastes the little room for error one has in such circumstances by simply trying too hard.

Air, in the end, adds up to a good but decidedly not great movie. Davis, unsurprisingly, steals the show every time she shows up, and the most sympathetic of the other characters may very well be Messina’s slick sports agent, David Falk. He wears his greedy, selfish motivations on his sleeve, and in not asking the audience to have any sympathy for that guy, Affleck accidentally but decidedly elicits it. As noted, Damon is also excellent, and the rest of the supporting cast, which includes Marlon Wayans and Chris Tucker, is also strong.

The biggest problem with this film is Affleck’s perspective itself — a difficult defensive alignment to overcome considering that the Oscar winner directed and produced the film in addition to playing Knight. By the time the closing title cards roll, you’ll be wowed without question, but mostly because of the incredible nature of this tale, and less because of the way Affleck tells it.

Grade: B-

Air had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and is now playing exclusively in theaters nationwide courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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