Ben Affleck’s Air is a solid 8.5 or even a 9 —- just don’t go expecting the world. It’s a modest, well-crafted film about vision and risk and soul and salesmanship, and the best aspect, I feel, is that it doesn’t swing for the fences.
It’s an unpretentious, steady-as-she-goes sports saga that frets about stress and failure and at the same time insists over and over that “if you don’t take a risk you can’t make a gain,” which is precisely what Walter Huston’s chuckling, goat-like prospector said in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
In a way Air is just as much of a pikers-strike-it-rich story as John Huston’s 1948 classic was and is, and the stakes are just as life-and-death when you consider what might’ve happened if Nike hadn’t signed Michael Jordan and if Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro and Affleck’s Phil Knight had taken a gut punch instead.
Their down-to-business story is about marketing and branding that wound up on a super-scale, but told with a modest brush. Nothing goofy or slick or wild-ass. It starts out ordinarily or even ho-hummishly, but then it picks up a little steam and then a little more, and then little dabs of feeling are sprinkled into the second act and then spoonfuls of the stuff into the third as it gets better and better and better.
And then the big payoff moment comes, which isn’t as emotional as Jerry Maguire but then how could it be? Air isn’t about wives or girlfriends or kids or dogs…it’s strictly about business and that’s a good enough thing, trust me.
Here’s the thing: Damon’s Vaccaro is a beefalo bordering on a lardbucket, and I was bothered by this at first. But guess what? I stopped thinking about the paunch around the 30-minute mark. By the one-hour mark I’d forgotten about it entirely. This in itself says a lot.
7:55 am update: It’s being said that Viola Davis’s grounded performance as Michael Jordan’s tough negotiating mom, Deloris, is the keeper. She’ll probably be Oscar-nominated, but Damon’s Vaccaro shoulders the weight. He’s playing the poet and the singer and the believer of the piece, and it’s his best performance since…what, the second Bourne film? Or The Informant? And I love how he’s never cowed by Affleck’s Knight, calmly standing his ground, and in fact plays him at the very end. It’s brilliant. And I love Chris Messina’s tough-shithead agent who reps the Jordans and is content to eat alone.