Affleck and Damon's SXSW hit, AIR, swishes the net

AIR had its premiere at SXSW, where I recently reported on the beefed-up selection of films. The new Ben Affleck directed film, in which he stars with his Boston buddy Matt Damon, was a three pointer from center court in Austin. 

To listen to the broadcast of this review, link to The WBGO JOURNAL on WBGO Public Radio here.

I played basketball in school until the other kids had their growth spurts. There was nothing to name after a B-Ball star then. The ball was always a Wilson. Imagine my surprise when Wilson made it into the movies opposite Tom Hanks. I think I bought the first pair of white Converse All-Stars high-tops ever sold; I was so excited. There was only Chuck Taylor’s name on the shoe, whoever he was, from 1922. The All-Stars brand was the star.

In the era of sports business films and TV—King Richard, Tetris, Ted Lasso -- enter AIR, a sports dramedy, pro-basketball division, that tells not the improbable rise of a basketball star, say Michael Jordan, but of the shoe Nike created for him, sold him on along with a Mercedes he was dazzled by as an inducement, and how the improbable deal carried Nike from nowhere in the soft shoe biz to dominance in fashion and branding.

Directed by Ben Affleck -- who did win three Oscars including best picture for Argo 11 years ago in a career that has almost always underestimated the intelligence of fans of his embalmed face -- AIR’s special gift is reteaming him with his Boston buddy, Matt Damon. Affleck is better when Damon is around — because Damon is always intelligent in containing his character until it’s time to let him out. AIR is the legendary, business-of-basketball narrative of how branding agent Sonny Vaccaro, brought on for his high school basketball scouting savvy to save Nike from sliding even lower than its 9% market share, did what it took in 1984 to push Nike to sign this guy Jordan, keep the nose-diving division’s boss from defenestrating him for risking the company by heading down to Jordan’s home in North Carolina to woo Jordan –and specifically Jordan’s show me the money Mama, Viola Davis’ Deloris Jordan – to take the deal.

Like the always watchable Viola Davis, who might be given to one or two raised eyebrows too many, Damon is a quiet actor, making you come to him to read Vaccaro’s professional weariness of the independent outsider who knows a thing-or-two thousand about navigating the institutional paralysis that is the standard sign of Can’t-Do Americanism of popular films. Between his divisional boss, played as vaguely sleazy by Jason Bateman, and the Nike CEO Phil Knight, a role director Affleck plays himself, the Alex Convery script lays out the default path of fear that haunts businesses like Nike after going public and replacing initiative with a board of directors’ reflexive aversion to risk. Convery wrote the business guys to know better: they can hear Vaccaro’s sophisticated statistical read of Jordan’s talent – this years before Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball laid out what Billy Beane was up to with the Oakland Athletics, ushering in the now tyrannical dogma of Big Stats – but are fearful on both sides of the deal that would put Nike’s money on a prospect without the CYA bona fides of at least nobody will blame you for taking the route of consensus mediocrity. It’s AIR’s genius that this triangle of sadness has two bad legs with Damon as the hypotenuse of possibility.

I am a huge Damon fan, and an Affleck fan not. Affleck can rise to the occasion as a director and admirably has formed a United Artists-inspired production company with his buddy Damon that mirrors the sticking point in the Jordan negotiations shown here: letting the talent have a piece of the revenue. Good luck with that: Affleck’s career as an actor, however, expressed as a broken clock, has been wrong 22 times a day. From what I read and see, he appears likable and smart, but his good looks and mostly bad choices, with a notable exception or two, make him the corn syrup on supermarket ingredient lists.

As absolutely awful as Affleck was in another SXSW premiere, Robert Rodriguez’s laughably terrible Hypnotic– where he plays an Austin PD detective who turns himself into a psychic zombie master -- Affleck is good in AIR as a new age Buddhist babbling business school type. It’s a New Age 80’s gloss on Institutional fear that is the twist on the theme of American paralysis. The root of bureaucratic fatigue was gold-mined by Clint Eastwood 50 years ago as Det. Harry Callahan, who famously wanted to junk judicial procedure to clean up crime in San Francisco by inviting the bad guys to make his day. It was easy to resist Nixon’s law ‘n order madness in Dirty Harry’s method and miss Eastwood’s workplace critique that Affleck and AIR here make abundantly enjoyable. The definition of straight shooter has changed from Eastwood’s urban wild west crime fighting era to the rituals of the behind-the-scenes corporate film and TV genre that dominates our entertainment now. It’s to AIR’s credit that no basketball ever breaks a net, the action never hits the court, all the skirmishing takes place over desks and phones that had wires, and yet it's as exciting as a buzzer-beater.

I confess I still have a hard time looking at grownups in Converse All-Stars without thinking they’ve been held back in 8th grade. But I stopped a guy in the Van Leeuwen ice cream parlor on the Upper East Side last week. He was wearing fleet black and white Airs with bronze hardware that had the beauty and grace of an ocean liner. I had to ask him where he got them. We had a nice chat, told me where he got ‘em, gave me a dollar amount that seemed reasonable. When he left me eating a Coffee Affogato waffle cone, my daughter looked at me as a fool and told me I’d never find them at a price I could afford. All this time I’ve been putting on Airs as a film critic, when it was the basketball guys who swished the net.