Cast: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Julius Tennon
Director: Ben Affleck
Rating: Three stars (out of 5)
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are as inseparable as basketball and Air Jordans. Both the associations have lasted all of four decades. When all of them come together in a Hollywood sports movie that is meant to capture the corporate boardroom drama behind Nike's storied 1984 endorsement deal with Michael Jordan, the result is, if nothing else, bound to bne intriguing.
Air, directed by Affleck from a screenplay by Alex Convery, is infinitely more than just that. It is fun. It is to the point. It is even electrifying especially when Damon, playing Nike's middle-aged, paunchy basketball talent scout, is at the top of his game.
Damon squares off against co-actors in the guise of sounding boards that do not echo his character's enthusiasm for a plan that he floats to rope in basketball superstar Michael Jordan, whose avowed allegiance is to Adidas and who is known to be way too expensive for Nike's cash-strapped basketball division.
Sonny stakes his all to bring Jordan, who is barely out of his teens, on board, launch a new individualistic shoe line, and prevent the Beaverton, Oregon-headquartered company's basketball shoe business from going belly up. He watches American tennis great Arthur Ashe's endorsement of the racquet that he won Wimbledon with a decade earlier. He has a brainwave.
George Orwell's 1984 inevitably gets a mention as do a wide range of events and personalities of American showbiz, sports and politics in the film's quick recap of a year of many highs and lows. It is the year of Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Mary Lou-Retton. But it isn't a year of plenty for
Nike's basketball shoes business. Its sneaker market share languishes way behind rivals Converse and Adidas.
“Mr Orwell was right,” says Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), vice-president, marketing of Nike's basketball division, 1984 has been a tough year.” But he is quick to add: “This company is about who we really are when we are down for the count.” Sonny Vaccaro latches on to that line of thinking and resolves to pull a rabbit out of a hat that has seen better days.
A blend of finesse and flair, and of a whole lot of fact and dollops of fiction, Air plays like a Nike advert. But more than that, the corporate drama comes off as a rousing tale of an outfit on the verge of collapse fighting its way out of the doldrums with a mix of calculated risks and cocky manoeuvres.
Sonny is up against scepticism all around and severe budgetary constraints. But he refuses to give up even when Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight (played by Affleck himself) and Jordan's tough-nut agent David Falk (Chris Messina) pooh-pooh his idea to design a Nike shoe with the basketball superstar's signature on it. “World class players don't wear third-rate shoes,” Falk says dismissively to Sonny and warns him against reaching out to the Jordan family.
That is exactly what Sonny does. His ‘just do it' spirit leads him to the home of the Jordans in Wilmington, North Carolina. Despite his unannounced visit, Michael's mom, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), gives the man a hearing but understandably makes no commitment. But with a foot in the door, Sonny presses on and secures a meeting with the basketball player and his parents, include Mr James Jordan (played by Davis' real-life husband Julius Tennon).
Michael Jordan appears in a couple of scenes of Air but his face is hidden from the camera. When he is at the negotiation table, other characters address him directly but he is not the one who answers. Mrs and Mr Jordan field that questions that are meant for him. In fact, Sonny's clinching pitch to Michael begins with “I will look you in the eye…”.
By opting not to show the audience the face of the man who gave his name to Nike's game-changing basketball shoe, what Air does is project him as a larger-than-life idea that is destined, like the Air Jordan, to live on beyond the basketball court.
Fuelled by wonderfully lively performances, consistently fluid filmmaking that approximates a free-flowing game of basketball, director of photography Rober Richardson's steady camerawork and a fine balance between exhilaration and moderation, Air floats free and rises to great heights often enough to be a high-scoring affair.
The film abounds in dazzling double dribbles made all the more exciting by the delectable presence of the wondrous Viola Davis in an all-male drama in which she holds most of the aces.
Featuring a sport, a company in the doldrums, a legend in the making and “the most beautiful shoe known to mankind', Air is never in danger of being an air ball.
With Matt Damon embodying the middle-aged basketball guru to absolute perfection and thriving on his onscreen duels with a bunch of actors (notably Affleck, Bateman and Messina) who know their game inside out, Air is an absolute treat to watch while it lasts.