Air (2023 Film): SXSW Review
Air is immensely satisfying to those already interested in its subject matter. Everyone else may find themselves rolling their eyes at its melodrama.
Does the idea of learning the origins of Air Jordans intrigue you? Do you have a genuine interest and/or love for that brand or Michael Jordan himself? If so, then Air is probably going to be one of your favorite films of the year. If you’re like me and think that a shoe is a shoe is a shoe, or that Michael Jordan (or any human being, to be clear) shouldn’t be held up as an everlasting god amongst humans, then Air will probably come across as either painfully pretentious or hilariously melodramatic. Air is a really well-made, well-acted film that caters to its target audience perfectly, but I just couldn’t get around how forced, formulaic, and even somewhat manipulative its narrative comes across.
Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is a shoe salesman at Nike, who pursues a partnership with basketball rookie Michael Jordan (Damian Young, whose face we never see because Jordan is just that sacred an entity … no, really, that’s the reason) to be the face of a new line of running shoes. He goes over the heads of his superiors to contact Jordan’s parents (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon), breaks several conventions, and faces pushback from his peers. But maybe – just maybe! – he can revolutionize the sacred world of the things we wear on our feet.
Okay, I know I’m coming across as really condescending here. It’s obvious that many people have a passion for this subject matter, including director Ben Affleck (who also stars as Nike CEO Phil Knight). And to be fair, there have been plenty of films depicting true events whose subject matter I didn’t originally care about, but whose execution completely sucked me in. In fact, Flamin’ Hot did just that earlier at SXSW. So, I was totally open to Air doing the same, especially since I do generally like basketball, at least enough to watch it here and there. But the tone and writing are so forcibly whimsical and self-important that I found what were supposed to be inspirational moments outright comical.
All of the tropes you’d expect in a movie like Air are here. Our hero has an unconventional vision that no one believes in, but he simply won’t give up, even if he has to risk his career. Nike is portrayed as the wholesome, pure corporation that truly cares about Jordan and basketball, while the big, bad competitors only care about themselves. I’m sure there’s absolutely no bias there whatsoever. Sonny gives a heartfelt speech to Jordan’s parents in which he accurately predicts every major step of the then-rookie’s career, as if he’s describing the trajectory of a godlike superhero. Because surely the real Sonny Vaccaro had that much foresight and professed it all to the Jordan family. There’s even a huge dramatic pause before the first utterance of the Air Jordan name!
In all fairness, I have no idea how all of these events transpired. For all I know, Air could be portraying them with 100% accuracy. But the presentation feels so overblown that my gut instinct is to seriously doubt that. Also to be fair, if such melodrama was centered around something that I believed truly warranted it, or tied closely to something that felt genuinely important to the world, I would probably buy into it more. But the only thought that kept permeating in my mind as I watched was … it’s just a shoe! Air tries to tell us why it’s more than just a shoe, and how it represents the dreams and struggles of a man about to hit it big. I see what it means, but the way he and the shoe are so built up comes across as outright manipulative, much like … well, a commercial for Air Jordans.
But, admittedly, Air is still an expertly crafted and performed commercial for Air Jordans. Damon’s portrayal of Sonny is so charming and persuasive that I can buy him being able to pull off the seemingly miraculous negotiations he does. Especially when he’s sharing the screen with Viola Davis, who absolutely owns every single scene she’s in. The interplay between her and Damon is fantastic, and her quietly emotional gravitas makes her the only actor who can legitimately sell me on why these characters take this endeavor so seriously. Chris Tucker is … Chris Tucker, but Affleck, Tennon, and Jason Bateman all bring the right levels of heart and humor where they need to, coming as close as possible to making the script they’re working with feel real.
There’s nothing wrong at all with the technical aspects of Air. The pacing and structure are all on point, the shots are stylized and graded like an old-school documentary, and you really feel like you’ve been transported to the 1980s from the very start to the very finish. Plus, even if you know nothing about the world of sports or even advertising, Air does solid work in helping you understand the ins and outs of how it all works and what’s on the line for everyone. There is also a decent, if not highly prominent, sense of humor to the film that I was very grateful for whenever it popped up.
I also wholly acknowledge that I’m not the target audience here. As I said, I like basketball, but I’m by no means an avid lover of or expert on the sport. This applies even more to shoes. As such, there could be so many layers to this story that I’m just not picking up on, reasons that justify how seriously the film takes itself. Despite my many complaints, I’m willing to give Air enough slack to easily recommend it to those who fall within that target audience, and even cautiously to those who don’t.
All teasing aside, I genuinely admire whenever a filmmaker has a clear passion for whatever they’re portraying, be it real or totally fictional. But the make-or-break factor for me is how well it’s communicated where that passion comes from, and I just couldn’t buy into Air on that front. But if you have even a passing interest in the story, you’ll potentially feel much differently.
Air was the closing film at SXSW 2023. It was released in theaters on April 5, 2023, and it will be streaming globally on Prime Video on May 12.