After a brief and unspectacular appearance at UK cinemas, Air moves swiftly onto streaming and is now available on Amazon Prime. It’s hard to understand what attracted Ben Affleck to this story in the first place. It’s essentially an expensive puff-piece for Nike – a film that conveniently ignores the company’s dubious track record of sweatshops and child labour and, instead, offers a story about one man’s ‘heroic’ gamble to launch a new product.
It’s 1984 and, while Nike are doing excellent business in the running shoe stakes, their basketball division is trailing behind Adidas and Converse. The company’s resident talent scout, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), is keen to find a young basketball star to help boost sales, but company CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), can only find a measly $250k for him to spend on the project – for which he’s expected to engage the services of three or four players.
But Vaccaro decides instead to spend the entire amount on one rising star, Michael Jordan – and, what’s more, to design a shoe based around the young player’s identity: the Air Jordan. But how can he convince the man not to sign with one of Nike’s powerful competitors? Vaccaro directs his pitch to Jordan’s influential mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), sensing that she’s the real power behind the throne.
Directed by Affleck and written by Alex Convery, Air captures the look and feel of the early 80s, with plenty of bad haircuts, nasty brown furniture and some truly horrible fashions. It also offers a propulsive soundtrack of MOR hits – Springsteen, ZZ Top… what could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty as it turns out. The main problem is that Air sets itself up as an edgy game of chance. Will Vaccaro’s risky gamble actually pay off? Or will it go tumbling down in flames? The problem, of course, is that we all know the outcome from the word go, a fact that effectively robs the story of any sense of jeopardy it might have hoped for.
The overriding result is that it’s very hard to care about what happens.
It’s also galling to see a true story that revolves around a young, Black sportsman peopled almost entirely by prosperous white males. These unlikeable figures spend most of their time hurling insults at each other, especially powerful sports agent, David Falk (Chris Messina). Oddly, Michael Jordan himself appears only as a voiceless figure with his back turned to the camera (apart from a brief post-credits sequence with Jordan eulogising his mother in a speech). This only serves to emphasise how little authority he has in a business deal that will earn him – and Nike – billions of dollars in revenue.
And no amount of placatory strap lines about charity donations and sports foundations can lessen the fact that this is a rather sordid story about rampant capitalism, which comes cunningly disguised as a tale of maverick heroism.
Jog on, Nike.
2. 4 stars