Film and drama Opinion

Air goes for a slam dunk but misses the hoop

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In the 1980s, a struggling shoe company bet everything on pursuing the greatest basketball player in the history of the sport. Digital editor Dan Jensen shares his thoughts on Air, now streaming on Amazon Prime.

MICHAEL JORDAN is as synonymous with basketball as he is with the Nike brand. But it took a massive gamble to turn the shoe company into one of the world’s leading sports brands, a story told in the movie Air, directed by Ben Affleck.

In 1984, Nike was struggling to compete against Adidas and Converse. Needing to sign an upcoming basketball star to promote their shoes, it took a gamble by talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) to try and lure newcomer Michael Jordan and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ben Affleck has proven himself as an accomplished director in the past with films like Argo and The Town, and Air once again showcases his talent behind the camera. Kicking off with a montage of ‘80s nostalgia before transitioning into the story, Air does a great job of convincingly placing the viewer in the time period.

Aside from that, Affleck manages to get some stellar performances from the hugely talented cast. Co-starring alongside Damon as Nike CEO Phil Knight, the film also stars Jason Bateman, Viola Davis and Chris Tucker among several other recognisable actors. Damian Young was cast as Jordan, although you never get to see his face on screen.

But all the great actors and authentically retro production design can’t make Air feel much more than a two-hour promotion for Nike. While the film is well-crafted, the story is lacking anything to make it feel remotely compelling. Not only do we know how it ends, therefore removing any sense of dramatic tension, but the narrative lacks elements of humanity or character development. It’s a flimsy premise that shows you a snapshot of a time in sports history but lacks the gravity to make it interesting.

Viola Davis plays Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother, but is sadly underused in the film. When Vaccaro travels out to visit the Jordans personally and pleads with them to join Nike, there exists the potential for some deeper moments of sympathy building, playing on the family bond to enrich the story with emotional weight. But the parents come across as nothing more than a management team and have minimal interaction with their own son.

Being that Jordan is one of the most recognisable faces in sports history, it’s understandable why Affleck chose to hide the face of Young. But the gimmick comes across as distracting, especially when there are moments where the camera is framed in a wide shot that shows Jordan wandering around a room looking at things on a wall while people are talking to him, appearing awkward and rude. Perhaps if the camera work had been better planned, the trick might have been more effective. But then again, if Will Smith can play Muhammad Ali, there shouldn’t be any reason to hide Jordan’s face.

By the time Vaccaro pulls the deal and the Jordans accept Nike’s terms, there’s an eruption of cheers and celebration in the company’s offices and we’re supposed to be sharing that triumph. But by then, it just falls flat. By focusing more on the deal, the money and shoe design, and eschewing anything to evoke compassion for the characters, Air will appeal more to hardcore basketball fans or sports history buffs.

The film's conclusion does mention some of the charity work accomplished by both Phil Knight and Deloris Jordan, but mostly shows off the billions made by Nike and the success it achieved bringing Jordan into the fold. The ‘80s was a time of capitalism and making that dollar, but you're left feeling that's not what the film should be about. It should be more about the human conflict involved in Michael making the decision to sign rather than how much money was spent. There is a moment where Vaccaro makes a passionate speech to him in a board room meeting in front of the Jordans and Nike executives that should be a hero moment, but it doesn't quite hit any emotional highs.

It's not a bad film, but it’s definitely not anything that you absolutely need to see. It does look good, it features great acting despite the weak story and also has a banging ‘80s soundtrack to move the film along. The themes of perseverance and risk-taking might appeal to some and there are some interesting snippets of trivia such as where Nike slogan ‘Just Do It’ comes from. But in the end, Air lacks the heart and soul required to elevate it among the great sports biopics of our time.

Air is now streaming on Amazon Prime, as well as finishing its theatrical run in cinemas across Australia.

You can follow digital editor Dan Jensen on Twitter @DanJensenIA. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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