Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"With another cast this would be an also ran, but Bateman, Tucker, Damon and Davis all put their backs into it."

Historical dramas have a difficult path to tread because the last half is often undone by the first. There's still opportunity though to, as with the best documentary, tell an interesting story in an interesting way. Air doesn't quite clear the bar.

In a pantheon that includes Ali (Ali), Beane and Boone (Moneyball, Remember The Titans), Clough (The Damned United) and more, sporting biopics can highlight moments those casually aware of their subjects might not know, but they still end up stuck between theories of history. Are they great men or products of great eras? Upon whose shoulders do these giants stand? Or, as is the case here, within whose shoes do these giants walk?

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Here that's the decision facing number three NBA draft pick Michael Jordan, all the way back in nineteen-eighty-four. Nike have a basketball division whose struggling doesn't prevent office games of Trivial Pursuit or portable Coleco games, nor a pristine purple Porsche for their overall boss. That's Phil Knight, played by Ben Affleck, who directs, and to good effect.

What carries this film is its cast. Jordan himself had apparently asked for Viola Davis to play his mother, and she delivers and more. Affleck seems once again to be trying to occupy the same space Alec Baldwin got to in Glengarry Glen Ross, one previously borrowed for Boiler Room, a fictive story set in the wilds of what would one-day be The Wolf Of Wall Street. Jason Bateman's Rob Strasser, stressor and stressee. Chris Tucker's Howard White often the only black man in the room. Matthew Maher's Peter Moore, somewhat tongue-tied as a peach among cobblers. Chris Messina's David Falk an agent as fond of the four letter Germanic homophone for his surname as Jerry Maguire was of seeing money. There's a small but perfectly pitched performance from Marlon Wayans as George Raveling too, one of those scenes that's just two people talking but covers all the bases and more.

The other person in that scene is Matt Damon's Sonny Vaccaro. There's a nod in the form of a toy car to his role in Le Mans '66 / Ford vs Ferrari, but I didn't spot anything that'd connect to The Last Duel's Sir Jean de Carrouges. Accidental filmic connections come about because Vaccaro founded the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, though that High-School All-Star game is connected to Al Abram's Pittsburgh charity and not directly to the pomade. A gambling sequence shows some of the same transferable confidence as in Uncut Gems, but that's where history and drama really collide.

It's possible that Vaccaro's decision was wrong, but we know it wasn't. Even at the time the element of risk was mostly personal, but a sure indicator of success (or at least noteriety) is that someone's making a movie about you. This could have been more akin to The Big Short, but hindsight and Hollywood have a way of getting to happy endings.

A montage at the end with 'what happened next' and some archive footage of Michael paying tribute to his mother just help cement the inherent inevitability. It wasn't at the time, of course, but that it will have been going to have been is as clear as conjugation. Elsewhere it's sometimes hard to tell if changes in focus are an artefact of filming process or part of the filming process. It often works, and it's likely this will be seen on smaller screens than cinemas, but resolution sometimes wavers in both senses.

Vaccaro's position as prognosticator is variously supported. "Call an audible" might be a term from American football and "calling the shot" may be more associated with figures like Babe Ruth, but if there's a hero's call here then he is not the one who refuses to answer. Damon's role here might once have been filled by another genial everyman with dramatic guts, a diCaprio, a Hanks, a Clooney, and it already seems that Taran Egerton's been fitted into a similar space in Tetris.

A period piece, this, set across a few months in the early mid-Eighties, it's got a stellar soundtrack, including a few bits of other films' scores and a lot of Tangerine Dream. It opens with Dire Straits' Money For Nothing and that's not as arch as it gets. I'm sure one of the jokes is an homage to Police Squad.

Perhaps the least established name is Alex Convery. His script was on 2021's Black List, a survey of the most popular unproduced scripts. That same list has given us literally hundreds of films, to the point that one might wonder what it is about Hollywood that means nobody wants to commit to a project until it looks like someone else is going to do it instead. That crowds are both wise and foolish is nothing on corporations.

The charming story of how a multi-billion dollar company managed to redefine an industry and make more multi-billions along the way. It might be an underdog story but it near enough manages it in the same way that other genres put mirrorshades on paedophiles or have martinis flavoured with the tears of orphans. It might make nods to the circumstances in which its shoes are made and it does reference later struggles to get student athletes something approaching fair compensation, but there's only so much scrappy and plucky multiple multiple award-winners can muster. I don't know if one can even talk about product placement in a film set in a place of production, but even champions need to eat.

Nike itself was going great guns, it was only the basketball division that was on its uppers. Air may be depicting Sonny Vaccaro as a gambling man but it also seeks to establish him as a prophet of this source of profit. An origin story of the creation of an icon, a catechism, a call and response that means Jordan follows Air as naturally as it does River.

With another cast this would be an also ran, but Bateman, Tucker, Damon and Davis all put their backs into it. There's a lot of telephone acting, but for the most part even at a distance nobody seems to be phoning it in. It's also good to see Affleck and Damon in the same room, they've got a history that can't help but bleed into others who also have a shared past.

As an addition to the canon of corporate hagiography it gets a lot of positive traction, but feels like it's done so by selling its soul.

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2023
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The story of of shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro, and how he led Nike in its pursuit of the greatest athlete in the history of basketball: Michael Jordan.
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Director: Ben Affleck

Writer: Alex Convery

Starring: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, Julius Mennon, Damian Delano Young, Chris Tucker

Year: 2023

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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