Review: Nostalgia, Affleck’s direction sets ‘Air’ apart

Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, and Matthew Maher in Air (Amazon Studios)

In the broadest sense, directors are storytellers, and for my money, Ben Affleck remains one of the best working to day.

His latest film “Air” winningly tells the story of how Nike beat out industry kings of the day Converse and Adidas in recruiting soon-to-be NBA rookie sensation Michael Jordan to be its lone spokesperson for the company’s line of basketball shoes, known as Air Jordan.

The movie is inspired by true events, though it is heavily reworked by screenwriter Alex Convery for drama, humor, and expediency. It’s a version of the story, and its compelling, interesting, and fun, especially for a guy like me who basically grew up in 1980s and remembers the ins and outs of Jordan’s college and early pro career.

The film stars Matt Damon as Sonny Vacarro, a Nike sports marketing executive, tasked with recruiting and acquiring players to endorse the brand.

While I remember Nike being the most popular brand of sneakers among my friends from around 1979 on, evidently the company was in dire straits in 1984 and on the cliff of bankruptcy.

The deal Vacarro brokered with Jordan, his family, and foul-mouthed, smart-aleck agent David Falk (Chris Messina) not only saved the shoe company but also catapulted it to the top of the industry.

The marketing of the Air Jordan line literally revolutionized not just the shoe advertising business, but all advertising.

The film is about Vacarro seeing something in Jordan that made him willing to gamble his job on the young man from North Carolina, who would quickly become the biggest name in sports worldwide, not just in Chicago.

Now, it’s not like people didn’t know Jordan would be a good or even great player coming out of college. He was the third pick in the NBA Draft, but Vacarro saw something in Jordan that he knew in his soul was beyond special, and he was absolutely right.

Damon is excellent in the film in a somewhat understated role. His Vacarro is a schlubby, single guy who gambles too much and is sort of an irritant around the office to his fellow executives and his boss Nike founder Phil Knight (Affleck).

Vacarro’s saving grace is that he knows basketball, and despite his demeanor and attitude, he has the trust of Knight and fellow execs Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker).

Vaccaro’s idea is to put Nike’s entire basketball shoe budget into Jordan, rather than signing two or three lesser rookies to promote the shoes.

The trouble is Converse is THE basketball shoe company, holding endorsements from Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Larry Bird. Adidas, however, is Jordan’s shoe of preference. To Jordan, Nike isn’t even an afterthought.

Vaccaro can’t even get a meeting with Jordan until he usurps Jordan’s agent and travels to North Carolina to visit his parents Deloris (Viloa Davis) and James Jordan (Julius Tennon), at their home.

While we know the outcome of the story, the hows and whys of it all make for compelling viewing. Affleck and his outstanding cast take us back to 1984 to re-live the story behind Jordan’s story.

While Damon is low key as Vaccaro, I would not be surprised to see him get an Academy Award push at the end of the year. Likewise, Davis as Jordan’s mom is genius casting, and her work is exemplary. Her telephone scene with Damon at the film’s climax is as exciting and intense as any action scene.

Affleck, who met with Jordan to get his O.K. to make the film, said in interviews that it was Jordan who stressed that Viola Davis should play his mother.

Affleck made another bold but accurate choice in not making a portrayal of Jordan central to the story. The movie, at its core, is about everyone’s view of Jordan and what he could be.

We see MJ portrayed a few times, but only from behind. Affleck said he believed casting a young actor to portray Jordan would have just taken viewers out of the movie. It was an astute choice.

Bateman is excellent in his supporting role. His character gave a personal insight on how much was truly riding a deal with Jordan materializing. Similarly, Tucker adds energy to every one of his scenes that only highlights Damon’s subtle yet intense performance.

Affleck, no doubt, has fun portraying Knight’s charisma, even if a few jokes at the Nike founder’s expense don’t really land.

The film’s soundtrack of mid-80s hits is nostalgic, appropriate, and fun, although it might get a bit heavy-handed at times.

While admittedly cheesy, I did love hearing the Night Ranger hit “Sister Christian” in the movie.

For Razorback fans, two former Hogs are referenced in the film. The great Sidney Moncrief is called the best defender in the league during a scene where Damon and Bateman’s characters discuss which draftees Nike should approach.

Behind them on dry erase board, the 1984 top draft picks are listed, and former Arkansas guard Alvin Robertson is there as the seventh player taken in the draft.

Robertson and the Razorbacks defeated Jordan and the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels, 65-64, during the 1983-84 season at Pine Bluff. Jordan and Robertson also played together on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal.

It’s hard for me not to be caught up in the nostalgia of this movie and its time period. I remember those days fondly. I also interviewed Vaccaro briefly at a practice for the McDonald’s All-American Basketball Game at Memphis in 1993 to get a comment about future Razorback Darnell Robinson.

Vacarro was busy but accommodating enough to give me a quick quote. Nice enough fellow, but he didn’t look like Matt Damon.

(R) 1 hr. 51 min.
Grade: A-

New in Local Theaters – April 7, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG) 1 hr. 32 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)
Air (R) 1 hr. 51 min. (trailer)(AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)
Paint (PG) 1 hr. 36 min. (trailer)(Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)

Classic Corner – The Easter Edition

Judy Garland and Peter Lawford in Easter Parade (MGM)

Easter is this Sunday, and that’s just too good of an opportunity not to recommend a couple of holiday-themed movies and children’s specials.

Ben Hur

Sometimes a movie is tagged as an epic falsely, but that is not the case with William Wyler’s 1959 classic “Ben-Hur.”

The word was practically created for the movie that tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Hebrew prince who became a slave determined to fight for his freedom from the Romans until he learns he can only be set free by letting go of his need for revenge and to find compassion for his fellow man.

Charlton Heston stars as Ben-Hur, and it’s arguably his finest performance in his best film. It’s hard to imagine any other actor in the iconic role of a man brought to his knees by his pride and lust for revenge.

Both in Gen. Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel and the film, Ben-Hur’s life echoes the plight of the Jewish people under Roman rule and parallels the life of Jesus, whom Ben-Hur meets at critical points in his life.

The film includes one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to celluloid with its thrilling chariot race, which many critics feel stands unequaled before or since.

The movie won 11 Academy Awards in 1960, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Heston), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hugh Griffith), and Best Cinematography.

The film is a three-and-half hour commitment, but if you have the time to watch it, I don’t think you will be disappointed. The movie is streaming on HBO Max.

Easter Parade

Musicals aren’t my favorite type of movies, but it’s hard for me to resist the charm of a good one.

The skill, talent, and effort marshaled to make the flimsiest of big-screen musicals are formidable, and the best musicals — “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “West Side Story, “The Sound of Music,” “Grease” “La La Land” — create pure magic, if you give them half a chance.

Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade” doesn’t quite rise to that magical level, but the 1948 Charles Walters’ film does feature Judy Garland at her apex and Fred Astaire while he was still near the top of his game.

Astaire had announced his retirement, but Gene Kelly, who was supposed to co-star with Garland before breaking his ankle playing volleyball, talked Astaire into taking the part.

The movie also features Peter Lawford as Astaire’ rival for Garland’s affection, and Ann Miller as Astaire’s former dance partner, whom Garland replaces.

The film, which won an Oscar for Best Musical Score, features 14 Berlin songs that provide the perfect vehicle for the performers to spotlight their talents.

The movie doesn’t really have a lot to do with Easter, other than that Garland and Astair stroll together in their best attire and sing “Easter Parade” at the very end of the film. The movie can be streamed on a variety of providers.

Easter Specials

Here Comes Peter Cottontail (Rankin/Bass Productions)

In the 1970s, it seemed every one of the three big networks looked for nearly any excuse to run an animated special presentation to break the monotony of the cop shows and sit-coms that dominated the air waves. While Easter wasn’t quite as popular of a theme as Christmas, there was no shortage of televised tales about the Easter Bunny.

Here’s a couple of suggestions of Easter entertainment for the tykes and perhaps nostalgic old fogies like me.

Here Comes Peter Cottontail

Peter Cottontail (voiced by Casey Kasem) is the heir apparent to the mantle of the chief Easter Bunny, but when a night of partying causes him to oversleep, his succession is in question. The evil Irontail (voiced by Vincent Price) wants the mantle, too, so he can twist the holiday more to his morbid liking. Peter Cottontail must travel back in time in an attempt to give away all his eggs or the evil Irontail will ruin Easter for everyone. Danny Kaye narrates the delightful 1971 special as Seymour S. Sassafras.

The Easter Bunny Is Coming to Town

“The Easter Bunny Is Coming to Town” not only introduces another origin for the Easter Bunny, but it also gives mythical origins for many of the trappings of the holiday, such as the bonnets, colored eggs, and jelly beans. This 1977 special will remind you of Rankin/Bass’ earlier film “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” from 1970, which gave away all of Kris Kringle’s secrets. It’s even narrated by Fred Astaire again as holiday mailman Special Delivery Kluger.

The Rankin/Bass specials were always my favorites, but if you search for “Easter specials” on YouTube, you’ll find a variety, starring cartoon characters of all stripes. The quality, of course, varies but the finds from such a search might be fun for parents with young kids to set the holiday mood.