‘Air’- Film Review: Ben Affleck Scores Big with Inspiring Sports Dramedy

It’s been far too long since we’ve seen the directing side of Mr. Ben Affleck. But, as most actors turned directors don’t make for the best impressions, Affleck might be one of the best out there, especially with his first three films to show off his biggest strength as an entertainer. He hit it out of the park unexpectedly with the underrated Gone Baby Gone from 2007 and followed that up three years later with the excellent follow-up The Town. It took the suspenseful 2012 film Argo for him to prove to Hollywood that he was a real contender. Since it won the Academy Award for Best Picture ten years ago, it was fortunate that it paid off. However, his last movie, Live By Night, was a step backward since the crime drama failed to impress critics and bombed at the box office during awards season. A really forgettable movie that tried much too hard. Seven years later, it’s about time to see him step back into the director’s chair to give us his long-anticipated fifth film, Air, where he does a great job at doing what all sports drama strives to be: crowd-pleasing and feeling pretty inspired to do what’s possible in what be an early Oscar contender. 

What’s the Story: Set in 1984, Nike, Inc. was financially struggling, making only 17% less than its competitors based on their sales. Shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) also oversees scouting for basketball players to represent the brand and put them on the map. Unfortunately, the company’s CEO, Phil Knight (Affleck), will likely close the sports division. So they need a massive win to their name. It wasn’t until Sonny decided to take their remaining budget to sign an 18-year-old NBA rookie outside of North Carolina, Michael Jordan, to make a deal to wear their newly invented shoe design, Nike’s Air Jordan, one of the most famous sneaker lines in shoe history. 

Did I know Affleck was directing a new movie at the start of the year? Nope. I never thought of the idea of wanting to get a film about how the Air Jordans came to be, but here we are with a sports dramedy that doesn’t focus primarily on the basketball action. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t watch a lot of basketball or sports in general but knew the greatest of Michael Jordan and how everybody wanted a pair of his shoes. If I grew up in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, there’s no doubt I would’ve been the most popular kid in school wearing them. I was unaware that Nike wasn’t always as popular or even on the same level of success as its rivals. Anyone who enters Air already knows the eventual outcome, especially if they don’t wait to find out he becomes the best basketball player of all time due to this vital business deal in the marketing industry. However, the journey itself was still necessary even if changing how we look at a business was not the primary objective. Since his previous movies were serious thrillers, this is a very different approach for Affleck. He chooses a lighter tone to tell us this true story, which aims to be the kind of feel-good drama you can watch with your dad and one that never gets boring for those almost two hours with its nostalgia for the more carefree times of the early 1980s.

Nothing about Affleck’s approach to the narrative appeared a trite nostalgia trip designed to make you want to go out and buy a pair as soon as the film is over. Instead, you want Sonny and everyone at Nike to succeed so they will stay caught up, which sets the commercialization of the American dream’s stakes too high. Part of me knows some of it is made up for dramatic sake, but it’s nothing short of believable. This man is willing to risk everything to get this winning ticket without taking “No” for an answer for someone who wasn’t huge at the time to get this one meeting. He sets his sights not on three athletes but one, Jordan, despite not being a fan of the brand, wanting to sign with Adidas. Although not everyone has the opportunity to see talent in action, it is still necessary to make an influence in the arena of sports. The most admirable feature of Air is that it focuses on simplicity without being overly flashy while engaging when it’s just moving along in a well-paced manner behind the scenes.

Matt Damon brings his best in one of his best performances in the last few years; seeing the drive of passion and desperation he has to get this deal goes for the relatable when he ensues this confidence with what Sonny knows about basketball. Just as he thought buying a zoo in We Bought a Zoo was possible, he’s putting his career on the line by taking a chance on Jordan. The acting side of Affleck, sporting a perm and trendy clothing as Phil Knight, is a lot of fun to watch, especially when working with his pal again and letting him take the lead.

The supporting cast was excellent as well. I can count on Jason Bateman to portray Rob Strasser in his usual dry manner. Chris Tucker, who plays Howard White, is taking a step back in his quest to find his comfort zone in supporting roles, as evidenced by Silver Linings Playbook and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, so it’s wonderful to see him back in a film. Even the limited screen time for Marlon Waynes as college coach George Raveling was a nice touch since he’s only there for one scene that didn’t require him to scream, which is good. As Jordan’s agent David Falk, Chris Messina provides the film’s funniest laughs, especially when he spews insults at Damon on the phone. And it wasn’t surprising at all watching Viola Davis as Michael’s nuanced, warm mother, Dolores Jordan, to where her role was much more important than we realized of how he pivoted his way to Nike. Jordan practically told Affleck he wanted the EGOT-winning actress to portray his mother, and she’s lucky to work alongside her real-life husband, Julius Tennon, as Michael’s dad.

Along with Affleck’s direction that easily hits those familiar beats, it’s unbelievable how this is writer Alex Convery’s first screenplay to have the characters talk their way through the most natural dialogue I’ve listened to so far this year, and most of them were set in offices. He’s almost going for an Aaron Sorkin was by his side to tackle a story with a vibe of Moneyball, Ford v Ferrari (another great drama with Damon), and Jerry Maguire that you don’t care if it goes for a straightforward narrative with having the characters have detailed conversations throughout. You care about the individuals debating how a shoe discussion ought to proceed. I doubted whether the movie would have an inspiring scene that would touch even one person. That moment eventually comes when Damon gives this speech with Jordan near the end, which I can’t wait to watch again. 

I didn’t expect this to add a lot of humor to the mix, which had me and the audience laughing consistently. And the soundtrack is another plus of why it’s a great time because it doesn’t shy away from having a playlist of some of the best jams of the time, starting with Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” to set the mood during the opening montage and kind of jamming to myself in the theater that made me miss when music was good. 

Overall, Air is among one of Ben Affleck’s finest films yet, making his filmography that currently sits at a four out of five. Predictable? How could it not be for a true story of this kind? But we got an interesting and well-paced underdog story about taking risks and seeing the untapped potential for someone. Surrounded by a great cast, soundtrack, and a tight script, it’s definitely worth recommending, even if you don’t consider yourself a sports fan.

Grade: [B+]

Air is now playing in theaters nationwide| Runtime: 112 Minutes| Rated R for language throughout| Studio: Amazon Studios

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