Could Ben Affleck be the last Hollywood filmmaker with broad appeal? The cinematic landscape seems hourglass-shaped: Scads of films with narrowcast appeal scrambling for dollars and attention at the bottom and a few blockbusters above blotting out the sun, with nothing but horror films occupying the middle. The indie lower levels are a kind of scouting league for the majors, with Marvel plucking new talent out of obscurity and putting them in the $150 million budget category without a stop-off in the now-vanished non-franchise moderately budgeted adult drama before that genre migrated to streaming and cable.
That leaves us with Affleck, whose short but credible directing resume includes everything from punchy heist flicks like 2010’s The Town to diplomatic thrillers like 2012’s Argo and noirs like 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. There’s not a franchise money-earner or indulgent indie among them. None are classics. But for 2016’s gangster movie Live By Night, most of Affleck’s films are captivating, briskly made entertainments aimed at the middle of the curve: not too obscure, not too dumb, and right between the blockbusters and the critical darlings. It says something about the state of things that a journeyman director like Affleck, once a dime a dozen, should be so rare.
This is why, oddly enough, Affleck of 2001’s Pearl Harbor and, more lately, Dunkin’ Donuts Superbowl commercial fame is the right guy to make a somehow not-terrible movie about how Nike signed Michael Jordan.
A true underdog redemption story with an unexpected kick, Air is about how shambling sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) turned around his career, transformed Nike into a globe-spanning behemoth, and revolutionized the athletic endorsement industry. Regardless of what Alex Convery’s script would like viewers to believe, none of that is actually that interesting. As written, there are many moments when Air could come across as little more than a Harvard Business Review case study put on film. As a director, Affleck knows what he has going for him here. Damon, who—much as it would be nice to see him take some Tom Ripley-like swings again—makes clear again in his role in Air his gift for bringing gravitas and depth to everyday guys.
Set in 1984, Air presents Nike as the runt of the basketball shoe industry, an also-ran behind giants like Converse and Adidas at a time when the NBA itself was a professional league afterthought. At the start of Air, Nike is flailing, spreading its meager endorsement budget on multiple no-name talents while the big companies snag the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. This irks Vaccaro, an irritable but intermittently visionary basketball savant whose love of the sport comes across as something organic and grounded rather than data-obsessed; you feel like he would rather be out scouting players at high school tournaments than sitting in his office. His big idea? Rather than try to outspend Adidas and Converse, Nike should put all its money on one player: the Chicago Bulls’ new player, Michael Jordan.
The first part of Air is about Vaccaro scratching and gnawing at corporate restrictions. He fervently spreads his gospel that the 21-year-old Jordan could be the greatest basketball player of all time, and so a crown jewel acquisition for the company. A lot of this involves Vaccaro haggling with Nike’s iconoclastic founder, Phil Knight (Affleck), a comical bundle of narcissistic agitation and faux Zen aphorism played for gasbag comic relief against Vaccaro’s edgy earnestness.
Air’s second phase follows Vaccaro trying to figure out how to bring in Jordan, who has made clear he has zero interest in a far-from-cool brand like Nike (as Chris Tucker’s salesman reminds Vaccaro, Adidas is so popular, Run-D.M.C. makes songs about them). Seeming to understand that success in this business venture for Nike – in the pre-Jordan years, a billion-dollar enterprise and still an underdog in the multi-billion-dollar businesses—is not the most heart-stirring story, the filmmakers make it a smaller, intimate affair.
Jason Bateman as marketing director Rob Strasser delivers his patented deadpan as a colleague worried about losing his job if Jordan says no. Matthew Maher charms as Nike’s ace shoe designer, Peter Moore, who crafts the first Air Jordan in a secretive Q-like lair. It is certainly more dramatically satisfying to watch Vaccaro huddle with his scrappy team and outwit the naysayers than cheer the introduction of another consumerist widget into a decade stuffed with them.
Air would barely pass the bar if it were just an against-the-odds sports marketing story in the Jerry Maguire mold sans romance and that travesty of a Springsteen song. Affleck’s direction, while getting excellent performances out of his cast, is weirdly half-baked in its construction; interstitials are jagged, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is for him quite bland, and the We Love the ‘80s! soundtrack is an irritating crutch.
Two factors are what keeps Air from being a broadly fun, well-acted, and audience-pleasing mediocrity with a standout Damon performance. First is Viola Davis, playing Jordan’s gatekeeper mother, Deloris. In the scene where Deloris first meets Vaccaro, who breaks every protocol by flying across the country to pitch his case directly to the Jordans without their borderline sociopath agent (Chris Messina) present, she regards his impassioned plea with a powerfully stoic and guarded cool. In a film where Vaccaro doesn’t seem able to open anybody else’s eyes to Michael’s once-in-a-generation genius, having him finally discover a kindred spirit who so fully shares his belief makes for an intimate bonding moment.
The second factor that just barely makes Air a film worth reckoning with comes at the end, in the thick of negotiations, when it seems like Vaccaro and Nike have secured their future fortunes. Without saying too much about the final wrinkle, which is in the public record but still likely not in most viewers’ minds when watching, it does put a surprise, thought-provoking, somehow inspiring, and ever-so-slightly subversive spin on this tale of corporate derring-do.
Maybe it took a director with Affleck’s broad-appeals instincts to see that wrinkle and the nagging thoughts it leaves audiences wrestling with. Maybe that is what Air needed to fit into and stand out from the too-long-neglected moviegoing middle.