Ben Affleck the director certainly has something. Like his Oscar-winning Argo, this study of Nike’s efforts to get Michael Jordan’s endorsement for its new basketball shoe buzzes furiously through its engagement with unlikely truths (and the odd forgivable invention). Both films are cast well. The director’s old mate Matt Damon uses his aw-shucks, penthouse ordinariness to soften resistance to the “sports marketing” executive Sonny Voccaro. He’s just an average Joe who happens to have $250,000 to spend on a campaign. Affleck is amusingly eccentric as Nike’s head, Phil Knight. Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker and, as Jordan’s mom, Viola Davis all make the best of every second.
Alex Convery’s walkie-talkie screenplay operates at a level of mid-snark that proves more digestible than Aaron Sorkin – the unavoidable comparison – at full kinetosis-inducing tilt. All this is smothered in enough creamy period detail to float the HMS Nostalgia and its sister ships. Robert Richardson, the film’s cinematographer, shoots in a gentle fuzz that suggests contemporaneous VHS. Every inconsequential action, from the opening of a car door to the buttoning of a shirt, is accompanied by a 1980s hit. Money for Nothing kicks in right at the beginning. Later, we encounter Time After Time, Legs, Ain’t Nobody and (well, obviously) My Adidas. When was the last time you heard In a Big Country by Big Country? You are about to hear it again. This is a film that knows it is set in 1984 and is going to make sure you know it too. If you were in any doubt, Matt’s Members Only jacket will clarify the situation.
All of which noise and bustle is not enough to distract from the whiff of late-capitalist decay at the film’s green-backed heart. The biblically serious Matthew Maher (more fine casting) gets to flesh out the art of Nike’s creative director Peter Moore. But there is no escape. This is a project in glorification of a gym shoe, a trainer, a plimsoll. The Air Jordan – for that is what the product became – is nothing more than a posh gutty.
Air makes gestures towards self-awareness, but the orgy of product worship drowns them out. The inevitable closing captions define the characters’ later success largely in terms of capital accrued. Cough and you’ll miss a brief allusion to this great American institution’s practice of manufacturing its daps in South Korea. There is, however, no escaping the blaring clatter of creative rationalisation. As events draw to a close, the screenplay appears to argue that, by allowing Jordan a percentage of the profits on merchandise (until then an unusual practice), the management was opening up a wealth of possibilities to athletes. Well, to some, anyway. It certainly helped professionals already sniffing great riches to an even larger slice of the money pie. Oh, well. “The business of America is business!” as Calvin Coolidge didn’t exactly say.
Then there is the cult of personality that surrounds Michael Jordan himself. For the most part, Viola Davis, as ever making apparent eye contact with every audience member throughout, speaks on behalf of the entire family. The decision to keep Jordan out of the frame – a shoulder here, a back of a head there – may spring from a desire to also include on-court footage of the real man, but there is, nonetheless, a flavour of those silent biblical epics that refused to show the face of Christ on screen. Jordan’s mystique cannot, it seems, be contained by mere technology.
If we were being kind, we could read a closing blast of Born in the USA as tacit acknowledgment of the film’s equivocation on the realities sketched above. Earlier dialogue has explained how Springsteen’s mordant verses are often overlooked in favour of the deceptively celebratory chorus. The film certainly invites fists to be pumped in celebration. It is less certain Air offers any meaningful critique of the society that gave us the sacred gutty.