One Instep Back in Time
On the long list of things in which I have little to no interest, there are – well, lots of things, obviously, possibly more than on most people's lists. There's a whole sport and sports-adjacent area, for one thing – basketball is there, and also athletic footwear. I was forced to play basketball at school for at least a year and the only thing I can remember is breaking a finger, probably, in a botched catch. I do wear athletic shoes, but I'm not dogmatic about brands or anything.
So I am really not the target consumer for Ben Affleck's Air, which is a film about basketball shoes. I suppose it is a testament to the power of cinema, or possibly my strange and long-standing fixation with Ben Affleck, that I went along anyway, despite the very unpromising subject matter. I suppose the presence of Matt Damon, who has grown into one of the more reliable leading men of the current era, may have had something to do with it too.
Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball guru working for the Nike corporation, who make athletic shoes. The film is set in 1984 (cue a great soundtrack of eighties standards), when Nike were selling an awful lot of shoes for running in, but not many shoes for playing basketball in (I wasn't even aware these were different things, but this is threatening to turn into a litany of ignorance, so I shall just stick to the facts going forward). The whole basketball shoe division is in danger of being wound up unless they can turn things around somehow.
Standard business practice dictates that Nike finds three or four reasonably prominent players to endorse, the problem being that all the superstars – hang on – someone called Magical Johnson, someone else called Larry Birdy, and so on – are signed to other companies that make athletic shoes: Adidas is the name of one of them, Converse is the name of another. And so, despite the misgivings of his line manager (Jason Bateman) and the founder of the company (Affleck), Vaccaro hits upon a new approach – sign only a single player, but ensure that this is someone who will go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. (This sounds like one of those 'easier said than done' business plans to me.)
The player that Vaccaro sets his sights upon is named Michael Jordan. I was a bit confused by this as I thought Michael Jordan was a boxer – or, more accurately, he plays a boxer in the Creed films, when he isn't playing a supervillain for Marvel Studios. But it turns out there are two Michael Jordans and the film is about the other one. The problem is that this other Michael Jordan is not a fan of Nike and is dead set on signing up with Adidas or Nike. So Vaccaro, in defiance of all normal propriety, goes ahead and visits the Jordan family in person, trying to persuade his steely mother (Viola Davis) that the company has something to offer her son. And it does! By one of those remarkable coincidences you sometimes hear about, Nike's new shoe is actually called the Air Jordan. It's like a match made in heaven. (Do you have basketball matches or games? 'A game made in heaven' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.)
So, yes, another example of the benevolent face of cultural hegemony: you try getting a film about Eric Bristow or Steve Davis released in America. Oh well. At least the good news is that Ben Affleck has long been a very capable film director – I might even suggest he's become a better director than an actor, but that might sound a bit like faint praise considering how horrible I was about him in films like Jersey Girl – and this is a jolly tale of people taking big risks in pursuit of their dream (which is, of course, a very American thing to do) and becoming quite extraordinarily rich as a result (which is a very, very American thing to do). Affleck turns it into such an engaging story you almost forget it's just about people trying to advertise an athletics shoe company (the film itself, of course, comprises a fairly substantial advertisement).
He is helped by a snappy script with some very funny lines and good performances from all the leading players. Matt Damon's thing now is that he's a sort of charismatic everyman, if that makes sense – his performance here isn't a million miles away from the one he gave in Ford Vs Ferrari, or whatever we're going to call it, and indeed this is a broadly quite similar story: how a big and successful company became so big and successful. There's also a nicely underplayed comic turn from Bateman. Affleck himself – well, films with him and Damon both acting in them seem to have adopted a pattern where Damon plays the lead and gives a fairly earnest, naturalistic performance, allowing Affleck to go rather bigger in a supporting role – in this film he has a rather peculiar demi-perm and turns up for several scenes in purple leggings, quoting Buddhist aphorisms as he does so.
Lest you be wondering, the other Michael Jordan does appear as a character, played by Damian Delano Young. But the piece is artfully directed so that most of the time he is just off-screen, or has his back to the camera: presumably because he is just so very famous, apparently, it would be distracting to see him with someone else's face. The film focuses much more on his mum, whom Davis portrays with her usual skill and presence. (I should also note the appearance of Gustaf Skarsgard as an Adidas executive – it's getting so new Skarsgards are coming out of the woodwork at a surprising rate, though on the whole they seem a good-natured bunch.)
Being a British person, managed decline is much more my sort of thing than brilliant and sustained success, especially when it comes to the arena of sport. Air is never particularly deep and does seem to presume that the audience a) knows and b) cares who the other Michael Jordan is; the film-makers probably even expect the viewer to share the view that he is possibly one of the greatest people of all time (yes, even greater than Maurice Flitcroft), not just a tall man who was very good at basketball. (But there you go, our civilisation treats sport like war and war like sport.) Despite all this, it's a pacy and engaging and above all else enjoyable film, eveen though it essentially treats the launch of a new athletic shoe as some kind of epoch-making historical event. If much of that is down to the presence of reliable stars like Affleck and Damon – well, all I can say is that they don't talk about the magic of the movies for nothing.