“Air” is a beautifully featherweight triumph of “on-the-nose” casting.
Need a guy to play a folksy spinner of anecdotes, a gambler and maker of speeches who converts the Non-Believers? Matt Damon, who has spent his career (“Good Will Hunting,” “Rounders,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Oceans Eleven”) playing variations of dogged, emotional “bet-the-wad” Nike shoe basketball guru Sonny Vacarro, seems perfect.
His office confidante, wide-eyed glad-hander quick with a quip — he’s the one who tells the condemned man origins of the Nike slogan, “Just do it!” — and quickest-of-all to play the “Black” card? Chris Tucker, of course.
Their bitchy, doubting, hard-to-convince boss? Jason Bateman lives and breathes Nike exec Rob Strasser.
Who on Earth could play future NBA GOAT Michael Jordan’s mother? Oscar winner Viola Davis makes us “Believe” Earth mother/canny businesswoman Deloris Jordan in our bones.
Nike’s zen hustler, self-mythologizer and not-as-ditzy as he might come-off founder and CEO, Phil Knight? If you think that’s a stretch for Ben Affleck, you haven’t seen him in ginger curls.
Affleck steps back behind the camera for a feel-good movie that takes us back to the mid-80s, back when athletic shoe behemoth and future sweatshop scandal Nike could be considered an underdog, a Beaverton, Oregon running shoe/track suit operation that had no prayer against the big dogs who shoed the then-dying NBA’s all-stars.
“Basketball’s the future,” the seemingly listless lump Vacarro, “the Mister Miyagi of high school hoops” sermonizes the Big Boss.
“The NBA finals are on tape delay (broadcast),” Porsche-driving, sloganeering runner Knight fires back. “It’s literally ‘the past.'”
“Air” is about Vaccaro’s vision, how he breaks down that last NCAA championship-winning shot from the skinny, “too small” kid from Wilmington, N.C., how he sees what is special about that year’s number three draft pick and convinces his colleagues and the viewer to see “the future” with him.
To do that, he’ll need a Hail Mary. He’ll need a Carroll Shelby/”Ford. v Ferrari” speech or two to Bateman’s Strasser, to Knight, to the Real Power in the Jordan family, his mother Deloris.
He’ll need to outfox staid Converse and Teutonic terror Adidas, to placate or at least neutralize Jordan’s high-rolling, dismissive agent David Falk, played to the very hilt by Chris Messina at his most abrasively unctuous.
And he’ll need to convince Nike’s shoe-design-and-marketing guru Peter Moore, played by Matthew Maher as the final perfectly-cast-piece of the “Air” bubble, to scramble and turn out a shoe for the ages, one that would change the game, the athletic shoe industry and the pro athlete-“owner” dynamic forever.
Think Mister “How’d ya like THEM apples” is up to it?
Affleck practically drowns the viewer in montages of mid-80s figures — Reagan to Magic, Bruce Jenner to Arthur Ashe, whose Head tennis racket TV pitch inspire Vaccaro’s Hail Mary, “Make Mike the Brand.”
We hear a tsunami of ’80s pop, sample the hairstyles and tracksuits, the pagers and Coleco video games and ugly Towncars and grape Porsche that was Knight’s pride-and-joy.
It’s almost like the director of “Argo” and “The Town” feels the need to try-too-hard. And when Sonny launches into a spiel (complete with sports/news footage montage) of what ugly downside “the future” holds for young Jordan (seen only from behind, like Jesus and Muhammad), it really does try too hard.
Yes, playing “All I Need is a Miracle” is so on-the-nose it’s grating.
But every time “Air” strays, this great cast brings it back. Messina flirts with caricature as everybody’s idea of the threatening, loud, barely-principled agent and for all Affleck/Knight’s zen koans about “Our business is ‘change,'” “Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment,” Affleck’s gutsiest call is to make Knight the object of fun.
It’s hard to maintain a myth after we’ve seen that hair, that car, those legs in track leggings and that “smartest guy in the room” almost blunder the deal that made Knight and upended athletics and how financial athletic success is measured.
My favorite scenes were the little grace notes that arrive when Vaccaro and Strasser decide “It’s time to see Pete.” Maher, practically an Affleck discovery (“Gone Baby Gone” and he’s even in the donuts commercials Affleck is doing) makes Pete the real zen master of this operation, a midlife-crisis on a skateboard who engineered the engineering part of the Great Shoe Coup, an artist who turned Air Jordan into an image of superhuman basketball flight.
And Affleck, cunning devil of a director that he is, gives the damned shoe its own “star entrance.”
Sure, it gets to be a bit much and kind of misses its drop-the-mike/”Be Like Mike” moment. But “Air” has everything we want in a feel-good sports movie — plucky underdogs, big speeches that deliver heart and a cast that, once you’ve seen it, you can’t imagine anybody else in that paunchy dad-bod or those never-really-in-style red curls.
Rating: R for language throughout.
Cast: Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Matthew Maher, Marlon Wayans, Julius Tennon, Jay Mohr and Chris Messina.
Credits: Directed by Ben Affleck, scripted by Alex Convery. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:52