Monday, May 8, 2023

Air: The Spirit That Moves a Business

Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) gives Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) a first look at the Air Jordan, in Air. (Photo: Ana Carballosa)

Ben Affleck’s roisterous comedy Air may be the most unconventional true-story sports movie ever made with the exception of Ron Shelton’s Cobb. (And Cobb is a masterpiece that transcends its genre.) Air’s focus isn’t exactly on a sport or a heroic player, but on the birth of a business decision and a company’s effort to turn it into reality. Moneyball veered off the genre’s beaten path by choosing a protagonist, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who made baseball history not by harnessing the spirit of a downtrodden team or devising a strategy to turn them into triumphant players but by choosing his recruits through computer-generated analysis. Its twenty-first century brand of pragmatism – the fact that it celebrated virtues that have nothing to do with the romantic vision baseball lovers cling to of their favorite sport – gave Moneyball a new kind of sharp edge. But the protagonist of Air, set in 1984, isn’t a professional athlete or someone whose job it is to make champions. It’s a businessman, Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), who works as a talent scout for Nike, unearthing young players on the hopeful cusp of basketball careers whose endorsement of the company’s basketball sneakers might make it competitive with Converse – whose shoes carry the imprimatur of Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd – and Adidas. (Nike’s runaway success in selling sneakers has markedly failed to extend to the basketball market.) Air is about Vaccaro’s courtship, over the reluctance of the company’s CEO, Phil Knight (Affleck), of eighteen-year-old Michael Jordan and the creation of the Air Jordan.

The movie opens with a strategy meeting where Nike’s VP in charge of marketing, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), struggles to energize his apathetic team to come up with a list of up-and-coming basketball players whose names might make a difference to the company’s basketball shoe sales. Sonny is fed up – with their lackluster suggestions and their lack of perception. His idea is to spend the entire budget for their department on a single player, Jordan, who’s just graduated from college to the NBA. Knight doesn’t want to consider it, even when Sonny, who gets the game in a way that no one else at Nike does, takes him through a videotape of the shot in Michael’s final college game that won him his NBA contract and makes the case that he’s not just talented but extraordinary, a once-in-a-lifetime player. Since we’re in the enviable position of knowing Sonny’s right, this moment operates the way scenes do in musical bios where the star who’s just waiting to be discovered displays a first sign of genius before the world has seen proof of it, like Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice singing “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl or Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash delivering “Folsom Prison Blues” in Walk the Line – except Affleck is using documentary footage. But besides the fact that Phil thinks Sonny is being foolhardy to want to squander the whole pot on a single untried kid, as he (and everyone else) reminds Vaccaro, Jordan doesn’t even like Nikes and appears to be leaning toward making a deal with Adidas or Converse. Sonny’s so sure he’s right about Jordan, though, that he’s obsessed. He drives to the Jordan household in Wilmington, North Carolina and charms his way into a backyard conversation with Michael’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis), who is the driving force of the family and her son’s confidante and chief advisor. He does so against Knight’s stated point of view and without getting his permission – and by making an end run around Michael’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina). But Vaccaro’s basketball wisdom and his instinct for what makes Michael special makes a strong impression on Deloris. And as Damon plays him (beautifully), Sonny is a master of the soft sell. So in spite of his rogue behavior, he manages to get a meeting with the Jordans after they’ve scheduled meetings with Converse and Adidas. Then he and Rob enlist Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), Nike’s designer, to come up with a shoe tailored to Jordan.

Air is a debut screenplay by Alex Convery, and it has everything going for it – wit, style, savvy, a gift for writing distinctive characters and a gift for dialogue. And Affleck, who made Gone Baby Gone and The Town and the hugely enjoyable action thriller Argo, is a very smart director with great timing and a sense for shepherding actors that’s close to flawless. In the first three-quarters of the picture, the film moves at what feels like breakneck speed through mostly a series of two-character episodes, but Affleck lingers long enough on his wonderful actors to get the most out of each of them while they’re mining Convery’s wonderful lines. In addition to Affleck and the always underrated Bateman, the gold-standard ensemble also includes Chris Tucker as Howard White, the VP in charge of Nike’s athletic shoes section, Marlon Wayans as Sonny’s best friend George Raveling, the assistant Olympic basketball coach, and Julius Tennon as Michael Jordan’s father James. (Cleverly, the filmmakers relegate Michael himself, played by Damian Young, to a virtual non-speaking role and the corner of the frame; we never see his face clearly.) Two of the supporting players, Messina and Maher, deserve the highest praise I can give: they give performances that are worthy of a Preston Sturges comedy. Maher played the unhinged underground comic artist in Funny Pages whom the teen hero (Daniel Zohlgadri) gloms onto in the hope of getting a pro to tutor him; alas, no one paid any attention to the movie, so Maher didn’t get the kudos he earned. He’s phenomenal, there and here. And though Deloris isn’t a starring role, it allows Viola Davis to do some of her finest work. Truth be told, good as she was in The Help and Fences (two movies that weren’t worthy of her), I haven’t enjoyed most of her leading performances. The fact that she’s a great African American actress doesn’t mean she should be first choice for every major role, and when she’s wrong for a character – Ma Rainey or Michelle Obama – her tendency is to overplay it. I fell in love with her in small roles in movies like Antwone Fisher and World Trade Center where she was so authentic that she burned a hole in the screen. She does the same in a more substantial part in Air.

The last section of the movie, beginning with the scene where the Jordans visit Nike, settles down to something that, if it isn’t precisely a conventional sports movie, is akin to it. The seed that Damon as Sonny Vaccaro plants when he takes his boss through the videotape of Michael taking over his final college game bears fruit when he stops in the middle of his rehearsed speech to the Jordan family and, improvising, tells them what he sees in the eighteen-year-old he and Deloris alone recognize as a prodigy. The scene, and the ones that follow, are satisfying in their own way, and there’s probably no other way Convery could have written them. But they substitute old-style basketball romanticism for the raucous, smart-ass humor that made me fall in love with the picture. I hope we see a lot more from Alex Convery.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

No comments:

Post a Comment