Film Editor James Evenden reviews Air, finding it works best when it combines its duelling modern and 1980s tones
Picture this: it is 1984 and Nike Basketball is in need of a superstar to endorse. The evil Germans over at Adidas are dominating the market. It is starting to look bad for Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the basketball scout for the company. Then, one night, he spots a young Michael Jordan on tape and realises that he is the star that Nike has been looking for.
Ben Affleck’s Air (2023) is good. Affleck’s ability to turn what is essentially a film about a singular business deal into an entertaining, and occasionally heart-warming story should be commended. The direction is snappy, the performances from a reliable cast are typically charming and cute and the script injects enough snarky self-awareness to keep the proceedings light. Air is a solid sports drama that will provide interesting insight into the basketball world and appeal to fans of Jordan as an athlete and entertainment figure.
Affleck plants his story firmly within its 1980s milieu, but never fully commits to the inherent campiness of the setting. At the same time, when he chooses to go over the top and romanticise Jordan and his value to the sport, he comes crashing back down to earth. Air becomes an interesting case study as to how to go about blending tones and eras of filmmaking, but unfortunately, Air lands more on the wrong side of that study.
Throughout Air, there is an underlying battle between the modern mode of filming dramas like this, and the eccentric 1980s undertones trying to break through. At times, Affleck strips back the in-your-face setting and focuses on the bones of the business. When Air removes the unnecessarily frequent references to 80s nostalgia, Air feels like a movie made of its time. It relies less on a buoyant tone and more on the snappy dialogue that Hollywood seems to relish in right now. This works fine, Damon is fine as a stock charming guy with a big dream. But, instead of sticking to this modern sensibility, Air then in the next scene throws you back into the 1980s aspirational sports drama, with big 80s soundtracks and flamboyant set design. These two tones never quite merge, and as a result, Air becomes trapped in an identity crisis.
There is a sweet spot in the middle of this, and when Air finds it, the film really soars. When Affleck cools the 80s cheesiness and takes out the cheeky modern dialogue, there is genuine heart to be found. Jason Bateman is the main reason for this, his easy screen presence and natural demeanour are able to provide real pathos. Air works best when it both leans into the human reasons behind the business, without drawing too much attention to it and undercutting things when dialogue becomes too self-indulgent.
This is not an easy line to walk. Air is able to undermine the 80s cheesiness when it wants to, but still lean into it just enough to create a buzzy warm glow to otherwise boring business jargon. This creates a modern-feeling film in the vein of a campy sports drama. The two tones gel best when the best of both worlds are recognised.
Thankfully a skilled cast keeps things grounded for the most part. Aside from Damon and Bateman, Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother is as watchable as ever. I do not need to tell you that Davies is one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, but she delivers such an important performance in Air. Davies is the centre of it all, beyond the business and the irritating 80s optimism. She outshines every other aspect of Air, consistently finding the fine line between modern cinematic self-awareness and charming 80s non-self-awareness.
Air is a bold attempt to cross the boundaries of sports dramas, to find the optimum moment of heart and sarcasm that will appeal to the optimist and to the cynic. The scenes where the film finds this balance elevate it beyond the typical sports drama, and even if these moments feel few and far between once the credits roll, Air manages to fly over the finish line with an easy-going style that complements the legend they are paying respect to. Boosted by strong performances and a consistently pacy directional style from Affleck, Air shoots big, and whilst it may bounce around the rim on its way into the net, it hits it with a uniquely enjoyable aware style when the game needs it most.
Air is now streaming on Amazon Prime
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