Five films into his career, it has become shockingly clear that Ben Affleck is the epitome of a journeyman director. Seen as a dirty word in recent years due to the popularity of auteur theory, the journeyman has long been one of the most consistent styles of filmmaking around. Their work is rarely flashy or showy, but dominates the marketplace – both critically and commercially – on the strength of universally sought-after skills: a good story, strong performances, and an ability to deliver a feel-good (or exciting) message to weary audiences. It’s the reason why The Town was a hit in 2010, it’s the reason Argo won Best Picture in 2012, and it’s why Air, a film with a deceptively simplistic (and perhaps even silly) premise, is such a crowd-pleasing delight.
In 1984, Nike was struggling as a shoe company. Despite some strongholds in the running wear field that keep them afloat, the shoes lack the durability of leading brand Converse, or the popularity of the German Adidas line. With basketball sponsorships all the rage thanks to the rise of players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and beyond, CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) tasks the basketball department, led by Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) to find reliable player to sponsor the shoe.
However, Vaccaro has his own vision: instead of assembling a list of disappointing second-string players, he theorizes, Nike should invest their entire budget into recruiting a hotshot rookie that no one takes seriously. Knowing they lack the funding of their rival companies, Vaccaro, Strasser, and Knight plan to woo the rookie through two unprecedented angles: by convincing his smart, but skeptical mother Deloris (Viola Davis), and by creating a shoe designed specifically for his style and personality. That underdog rookie was Michael Jordan, and that shoe pitch became the Air Jordan, the most popular sneaker in history.
What Affleck excels at as a director is selling a story – to paraphrase John Ford, printing the legend. A great storyteller spends so much time developing the world, the characters, the stakes, and beyond, that the audience is willing to ignore anything that breaks that illusion. Take, for example, Argo. Affleck’s world is so well-developed, so entertaining, and so enveloping, that audiences were willing to ignore the fact that the climax involves a rundown jeep outrunning an airplane. So too does Air uses sleight of hand to engross its audience: you’re so invested in an underdog story about an underdog team taking on Big Shoe with an untested rookie, you’re willing to ignore the fact that Nike was already a billion-dollar company and Michael Jordan was already third in the draft on his way to becoming the greatest player of all time.
Every decision that Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery make ties into selling the audience on this story – which, naturally, ties into our innate desire to believe in dreams, and fate, and belief. Every decision seems rooted in an understanding of our desire to believe the narrative no matter the cost. And while this may result in a few too many meta jokes (lots of 80s references, Phil Knight declaring “Maybe it’ll grow on me” upon hearing the name “Air Jordan), it also results in moments that make us want to believe. Affleck carefully establishes the popularity of 80s consumerism and spokespeople that ultimately launched the decision.
And every chance possible, the film reminds us that underneath all the pomp and circumstance, Jordan truly was the greatest of all time. In fact, Damon has a monologue where he describes realizing the rookie’s potential for the first time, having studied the famous footage of his freshman year buzzer-beater at North Carolina. It’s an obvious monologue, and people who know Jordan’s greatest might otherwise roll their eyes. But hearing Damon’s delivery of Convery’s writing, intercut with actual footage of Jordan’s on-court capabilities – I’m not going to lie to you, it’s chill-inducing. That is what great filmmaking can do: it can move you even while telling you things you already know.
Even the acting seems to feed into this notion of feel-good mythmaking, as every actor is playing off a carefully honed persona, and giving audiences exactly what they do best. Damon is a likeable, charismatic everyman, delivering earnest, riveting monologues. Bateman is a likable assh*le, motormouthed and flummoxed with the best of them. Affleck is a weird rich dude whose ego is constantly checked by a lack of social skills – perfect for the character and Affleck’s well-documented awkwardness and shortcomings. Chris Tucker rapid-fires dialogue to bombard viewers into a sense of ease. And Chris Messina uses his fiery passion to give viewers an all-time great foul mouthed agent – he’s one of the film’s scene stealers.
But ultimately, this film belongs to two performers. The first is renowned character actor Matthew Maher, who plays the eccentric designer of the Air Jordan. Maher is a great oddball, and he knows how to deliver funny lines dramatically and dramatic lines comedically, which is exactly what you want for this kind of role. Yet unsurprisingly, the film’s greatest performer is Davis, who gives a master class pretty much every moment she’s onscreen. She gives the film’s only real performance (as opposed to a continuation of a persona), and every line, every expression, and every movement conveys this. I love every monologue she performs, but one should really watch what she does with her eyes – the way she analyzes pitches and reads the bullsh*t on display is just sublime physical acting.
Air is a testament to the power of simple, unadorned filmmaking. It’s not a flashy film. It’s not fancy, or necessarily great in any way. But it tells its story well, and tells you the story you want to hear whether or not you need to hear it. It’s not a film you’re going to necessarily need to seek out, or rush to the theaters to see. But over the years, you’ll pass it on cable, or scroll by on streaming, and think “This’ll pass the afternoon.” And you’ll find yourself immersed by Davis’ performance, and Affleck’s filmmaking, and the story of how a shoe company and a kid from North Carolina teamed up to change the world of sports and clothing forever.
Air is now playing in theaters nationwide