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Review: Air is Affleck at his Most Amusing


Directors are fascinating in their own right, but there’s always an extra layer of interest in watching a famous actor direct themselves. Will they feature in more scenes than necessary? Are they the subject of one too many close-ups? Do they have the funniest lines?

For Ben Affleck’s new movie Air the answers to the above are, No, No and Maybe? Because Ben Affleck the director knows how much audiences want Ben Affleck the actor. The good news is that both Afflecks are on top form here. Not only does he direct himself exceptionally well, Affleck directs the hell out of a terrific cast about a subject that, a first glance, doesn’t lend itself to exciting Hollywood filmmaking.

Matt Damon is actually the star of Air, which concerns itself with the signing of Michael Jordan to the Nike brand and the creation of the Air Jordan trainer. Damon plays real-life Nike marketing executive Sonny Veccaro, whose job seems to be watching college kids play basketball, as he tries to use his meagre marketing budget to lure NBA players away from his cooler, wealthier and more successful competitors, Converse and Adidas. Veccaro has a feeling about a young Jordan and must do all he can to sign the player, including winning over his marketing director (Jason Bateman), the Nike CEO (Affleck), Jordan’s agent (Chris Messina) and most importantly, Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis).

Air has been called a movie about marketing, but it’s more akin to the sporting feel-good films of the Nineties, like Jerry Maguire. It’s about the magical feelings that can arise around the creation of a sporting legend, and how brands can disseminate that magic to the masses. Surprisingly, this film isn’t cynical at all, Affleck somehow manages to avoid glorifying capitalism and celebrity. It also just about avoids being another white-man-saviour story, mostly because of Affleck’s directing style, a peculiar mix of very funny jokes and a kind of unpolished storytelling which minimises soundbites and mic drops in favour of moments of wonder.

The real-life story on which the film is based sadly doesn’t include many non-white characters, and Affleck barely includes any scenes with Michael Jordan in Air, a shame, but clearly a decision made to leave the way open for a proper black-centred biopic in the future. The film does however, include great work from Davis, who is on screen just as much as she needs to be, and Chris Tucker as a Nike player liaison, the comedian giving a dialled-down, serious performance. This leaves room for scene-stealing turns from Messina as a textbook killer agent and also from Matthew Mahler as creative director Peter Moore, whose excellent delivery make his scenes unforgettable. And yeah, Affleck’s portrayal of the zen Nike CEO Phil Knight is pretty funny, partly due to his ’80s neon apparel and ridiculous wig work.

As usual, Matt Damon is this film’s heart and soul. Famous for his commitment to any role, whether lead, cameo, comedy or drama, Damon’s everyman pathos makes Veccaro easy to root for. If this shapeless middle-aged man with no family or social life was played by practically anyone else, he could come across as unlikeable or strange, but Damon is so naturally likeable. The only time Air ever misses the mark is in Affleck’s heavy use of its 80s soundtrack when scored sections would have better suited the film’s tone.

Air shows how Affleck the actor-director understands exactly how to entertain an audience with his personal brand of filmmaking. And this brand has legs.

Air opens in cinemas on 5th April 2023.

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