On Cinema

Into thin Air

A pro-capitalist cinematic curiosity

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The astonishing thing about the movie Air is how low the stakes are. When Ben Affleck made Argo, it was the true story of rescuing diplomats from revolutionary Iran. His latest directorial effort is the true story of how Nike, which by 1984 was already selling a lot of shoes, sold even more.

Matt Damon, who has played an assassin on the run and a marooned astronaut trying to get home, here plays a paunchy marketing guy. If he fails in his mission, well, a bunch of other middle-aged marketing guys might be out of work. 

Now, I can empathise with greying men in precarious employment situations as much as anyone

Now, I can empathise with greying men in precarious employment situations as much as anyone, but even so, the story of how Nike, at the time the least fashionable brand in basketball, signed Michael Jordan, the sport’s greatest ever star, sounds more like a BusinessWeek long read than a film crying out to be made. Especially when you look at some of the decisions Affleck took in making it. 

I would love to know how he sold backers the idea that he was going to make a movie about basketball and Jordan that features neither basketball nor, in any meaningful way, Jordan. He might have pointed out that the Air Jordan is the most famous trainer ever made, but you don’t really see a lot of the shoe in the movie either. If there’s something special about it, we’re not told. Instead, we get quite a lot of arguments about marketing budgets. 

At one level, nothing in the film matters. The deal with Jordan was indeed ground-breaking, but if he had signed with Adidas, he would still have been a legend, just a less rich one. Nike meanwhile would still have been a successful trainer-maker. 

But Affleck (above) makes the film work because he tells us the story of two people to whom the deal mattered very much: Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (played by Damon) and Jordan’s mother Deloris (played by Viola Davis). Both see something special in the rookie Michael — “Greatness,” Vaccaro calls it. 

Damon gives us a Vaccaro who truly might be destroyed if he can’t get Jordan’s signature. He looks like a wreck: far from the bulked-up beefcake he was in the final Bourne film. He’s overweight, unfit and jowly, a man whose body is shaped by too many dinners of ribs in bars on the road. 

You fear he’d have a heart attack running for a bus. Davis plays Deloris as shrewd and determined to protect her son from the exploiters she knows are waiting for him in the world. 

Affleck himself provides comic relief as Nike president Phil Knight, whom he portrays as a hilariously self-regarding twerp, a man who has mentally gone to seed, unwilling to repeat the risks he’d taken to build a multimillion-dollar business. The evocation of the Eighties, from Knight Rider and big perms to Vaccaro’s delight at discovering that his rental car has a phone in it, is note perfect.

There’s a certain American arrogance to the entire project. The rest of the world has learned to live with the explanatory lines slipped into any movie containing concepts unfamiliar to audiences in the Mid West — “Welcome to Paris, capital of France, occupied by the Nazis since 1940!” — but the courtesy is never extended in the other direction. If you don’t understand the American system of sports drafts and sponsorship going in, you still won’t when coming out.

It’s not really clear who this film is for. I wouldn’t recommend it as a date movie, unless you’re dating an advertising executive. Nor is it really a sports movie. 

It belongs in the small niche of films made in unashamed praise of American capitalism. Sonny doesn’t come up with a better shoe, he comes up with a better way of selling shoes. Even within that category, it’s hard to think of a film like it. Steve Jobs was about obsessive vision. Moneyball was about undervalued skills. Jerry Maguire was about the meaninglessness of success without love. Air has nothing to it at all, but I really enjoyed it.

Kindling, on the other hand, is a film about the big stuff. Sid, just 21, is dying of cancer, and with weeks left to live wants to have a final celebration with his friends. It’s an intimate, moving story about a gang of lads caught in the moment between the freedom of the teenage years and the realities of adulthood. 

There’s no mention of Covid in the film, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this story of mates gathering together and wandering aimlessly through the English countryside is somehow a reaction to lockdown. Sid’s parents, anxious to preserve his little remaining health, wrestle with the tension between imposing curfews and allowing him the freedom he needs. 

The young cast are excellent

The young cast are excellent as boys becoming men, riding skateboards and bikes through the village where they live, teasing and encouraging one another. It’s told almost entirely from their perspective, with actors Geoff Bell and Tara Fitzgerald credited simply as “Sid’s Dad” and “Sid’s Mum”. 

Parents and girls are, like the English countryside, simply a background for the gang’s friendship. It stays in the mind and, despite the subject matter, is an uplifting story suffused with love. 

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