Air REVIEW – A Heartfelt, Crowd-Pleasing Winner

“A shoe is always just a shoe until someone steps in it.”

Air review
Air review

With crackling dialogue, stellar performances, and subtle-yet-meaningful stylistic choices, Ben Affleck’s Air is a blast — somehow making a story that seems, on paper, to be rather dull into an uplifting ode to teamwork and rule-breaking tenacity. It’s also a tribute to a mother’s love and a reflection on the tug-of-war between manipulative marketing and genuine humanity.

The story unfolds in 1984, zeroing in on Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who recognizes a young talent named Michael Jordan and wants to capitalize on his greatness to secure Nike’s foothold in the basketball shoe industry. Nike holds a meager 17% market share worldwide, is almost bankrupt, and has a small budget to sign players, but Sonny is wholeheartedly convinced that Michael will be the next big thing. With a love for the sport, a charismatic personality, and workaholic tendencies, he pushes himself to the brink, willing to risk his livelihood to make a potentially game-changing play for the company.

Sonny’s jaded boss Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) initially thinks that Sonny’s off his rocker, as does Nike’s high-strung CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), lovable motormouth businessman Howard White (Chris Tucker), and Michael’s wildly vulgar agent David Falk (Chris Messina). Going behind their backs, Sonny reaches out to Michael’s parents, Deloris (Viola Davis) and James Jordan (Julius Tennon) — bypassing traditional avenues and setting the stage for the creation of the legendary Air Jordan sneaker.

Affleck’s film is a relatively low-key affair, with an ensemble that delivers without resorting to caricatures. Damon, in particular, is outstanding — conveying a warmth and understated professionalism that carries with it hints of melancholy and anxiety. Sonny is consumed by work: he spends nights alone in his recliner, poring through stacks of VHS tapes of basketball footage, with no social life to speak of. His outwardly gentle vibe is balanced by a drive to achieve. He’s positioned as an underdog that’s easy to root for, regardless of a prevailing question of just how much he truly cares about Michael as a person, and the unjust company standards he’s able to subvert.

Bateman is similarly textured. Rob is exasperated and overworked, yet determined to succeed, largely to honor his daughter, who he sees sparingly and often gifts with Nike shoes, symbolic of more than mere footwear. Affleck conveys Knight’s insecurity and flamboyance in endearing fashion (Knight’s a fan of Buddhist aphorisms), without sliding too far into the comical; Tucker’s Howard is enjoyably scatterbrained; and Messina steals scenes as a corporate type exuding slimy smarminess with hilarious, acid-tongued panache. Marlon Wayans as George Raveling and Matthew Maher as Peter Moore leave strong impressions in small yet meaty roles too.

However, Davis, as expected, practically steals the show, bringing Deloris to life with a pitch-perfect mixture of kindness, ruthlessness, and steadfastness. She commands scenes without uttering a word, such as when silently judging rival companies trying to woo Michael with bland, soulless appeals. While Davis doesn’t have much screen time, she delivers the film’s most moving lines; Deloris cares deeply about her son, believes in his limitless possibilities, and will not, under any circumstances, let others deny his worth.

First-time screenwriter Alex Convery’s screenplay captures the camaraderie and extensive monologuing with a flair that calls to mind Aaron Sorkin, swinging from comedic to dramatic and back again with ease. Indeed, Air turns marketing meetings into riveting cinema. It’s full of sequences where characters verbally face-off, sizing each other up and either proving their worth or falling flat on their faces, with empathy and intelligence emerging over cynicism and dishonesty.

Affleck’s direction is unshowy yet inviting, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography gets the job done with workmanlike shot compositions. The film’s generally ordinary presentation makes certain sequences, such as intercutting real-life news clips from future years throughout one of Sonny’s especially dynamic pitches, stand out more. The atmosphere is enhanced by an oddly somber score mixed with frequent (perhaps overdone) ‘80s needle drops. The camera, sometimes unnecessarily, cuts back-and-forth to various products of the time to remind us that, yes, we are watching a film taking place in the ‘80s.

Interestingly, Air doesn’t show Michael’s face or have him speak during the runtime. This was done to focus attention on those around him, especially Deloris, but it also, ironically, reduces Michael to an idea to be taken advantage of: simultaneously a larger-than-life presence and a plot point used to make a profit, both within the film and outside it. Similarly, in keeping with the film’s upbeat vibe, Affleck shies away from showing much of the repercussions of Sonny and co.’s tireless striving. As a result, he seems to condone an unhealthy work ethic in a large corporation hardly in need of the attention today. Still, nitpicks aside, there’s much to enjoy in this unexpectedly winning watch.

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Air review
Air is a compelling, expertly acted ensemble piece that defies a potentially ho-hum premise to become a slam-dunk.