My favourite moment in Air is a little after Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), talent scout of Nike’s basketball division, finds out Michael Jordan and family will be coming down to hear their pitch. “Time to see Pete,” he says to marketing man Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman). As Sonny takes the elevator to the basement, the soundtrack revs up. Everything’s set up for Christian Bale to walk out in a wig (we’ve seen the top of Pete’s bald head in an earlier scene). Instead, it’s Matthew Maher. Now, Maher is a delightful actor you might recognize from any of a dozen films or shows. But it’s still hilarious that Pete, genius shoe designer, isn’t a star in regular Joe disguise but—by Hollywood standards—just some guy.
This embrace of squareness is a big part of Air’s charm. Matt Damon's shirts are some of the drabbest a major movie star has ever worn. Ben Affleck, playing Nike founder Phil Knight, turns up in a hideous black-and-pink jogging suit and white jacket ensemble. Nike wasn’t cool in 1984, and so the film isn’t cool either. The sought-after basketball shoes are Adidas—Nike executive Howard White (Chris Tucker) tells a clueless Sonny about the just-released Run-D.M.C. track—and Converse, with their All-Star roster. Nike is a jogging shoe, an image that’s detrimental to its efforts in the basketball market. As Howard says, “You ain’t gonna catch no Black person running 26 miles for no damn reason.”
Sonny’s friend might have Martin Luther King’s epochal 1963 address in his possession, but Sonny too has a dream: to land a promising young basketball player named Michael Jordan. The problem is, Jordan’s talents are self-evident and everyone wants a piece of him. Sonny goes around Jordan’s agent, David (Chris Messina), and—breaking an unwritten rule of the business—approaches the parents directly. He manages to convince Jordan’s formidable mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), to give them a hearing—after they visit Adidas and Converse. And the stage is set for Sonny to Don Draper his way into footwear history.
We know how it ended up. Jordan signed with Nike and became the star athlete Sonny hoped he would be. Air Jordan became the most famous shoe line ever. It isn’t Sonny’s ingenuity that wins the day for Nike but his perseverance and his almost messianic belief in the young athlete. There are a few sleights of hand—like defying the NBA’s rules about shoe colour—but not a lot (you can imagine someone like Adam McKay taking the film in a different direction). The film turns on Sonny’s increasingly emotional appeals, and Deloris’ careful assessment of his promises.
Air, written by Alex Convery, might be seen as a series of conversations Sonny has with Rob, Howard, Phil, David (the funniest exchanges), Deloris. It’s difficult not to think of Sorkin. The wording, the pace isn’t his—less frantic, less perfect (though Pete saying “So the shoe is a physical manifestation of the individual rather than the individual as emblem of corporate entity?” is pure Sorkin-ese). But the characters are the types he’d write: there are shades of The West Wing’s Josh Lyman in David’s cheerful trash-talk, and of The Newsroom's Charlie Skinner, an eccentric boss who comes through, in Phil. Damon has some of the morose determination of Brad Pitt’s baseball manager in Moneyball. He’s onscreen for nearly the entire film, looking tired and grumpy but always switched on.
For the last few years, in between their straightforwardly commercial roles, Damon and Affleck have been making the sort of films that Hollywood greenlights fewer and fewer of: human dramas, with life-size characters. Air is about a corporation and a brand but it doesn't feel like it's assembled by a boardroom, unlike any number of recent tentpole films. You can feel Affleck’s affection for everyone in it; the most moving scene might be Rob admitting he's been buying his daughter’s affection with free shoes after his divorce. Affleck can turn it on as a director—Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo are a stellar first three—but Air doesn’t have the scale or the razzle-dazzle of a film out to win awards. It’s the kind of film you’d put on when you want something familiar. The kind of film where, seeing it for the first time, I was already looking forward to the rewatch.