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'Air' is Affleck's Late-Game Alley-Oop

In 1984, Michael Jordan played his first NBA game for the Chicago Bulls. He would go on to become the greatest basketball player of all time. In 1994, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon completed their script for Good Will Hunting. Four years later, the two became the youngest writers to ever win Academy Awards.

In 2022, the duo made a film about Jordan’s journey to becoming the first NBA player with his own shoe line and the first to earn revenue from it. Two men whose legacies have been cemented cannot help themselves from reflecting on and imagining their own legacy. For this reason, Air is one of the most interesting by-the-books sports dramas in years, as Affleck and Co.’s midlife crises spurn a perfectly entertaining and middlebrow geezer pleaser with notes of trepidation and hope alike.

After 2016’s Live by Night, Affleck stepped away from the director’s chair for a good while and stuck to being in front of the camera, both on and off the clock. Everybody knows the ups and downs of Affleck, from his life as an eternal meme to the struggles of his personal life to now being Mr. Jlo after 20-some-odd years apart. But it was strange to see him take a break after such a strong directorial run. Maybe he needed the right script, or maybe he needed to reach some sort of equilibrium. Nobody can say, but it is interesting that he chose to explore not the story of Michael Jordan, but the formation of the legendary hoopster's societal footprint in real time.

More specifically, Air is a film about the people who saw greatness passing by them and decided to leap at it in the hopes of catching some of the light coming off it. It's a movie predicated mostly on the conventions of any good procedural dramedy (specifically an '80s period piece, as the relentless needle drops prove), but what Affleck seems preoccupied with is the notion of legacy and how it comes into being.

Matt Damon, Affleck’s longtime friend and collaborator, plays Nike’s basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro with the steady-hand, everyman ease that he so naturally brings to roles like this. Simmering underneath, however, is a desire for something better for this company, for this sport, for this era. Vaccaro’s preternatural ability to spot The Guy is not a defining feature here, instead presented as a small facet of his professionalism that he uses to push forward the idealistic sea of change that’s about to occur. This is what drives Vaccaro and his colleagues to believe in this more titanic effort, this leap toward greatness and a lasting legacy.

Surrounding him is a cast of absolute ringers with no real MVP. This is not meant as a knock on them but as a compliment to how well this ensemble works together, as they all carry a similar burden. From his fellow employees at Nike to Viola Davis’s Deloris Jordan, every member of this cast has an air about them of reaching for some lasting legacy. Michael Jordan himself is never shown; he’s only seen in shadow or from behind, because Michael Jordan already has that legacy. Affleck isn’t interested in the story of how one man’s legacy was built – he’s riveted by how many people around that man scratched and clawed their way to touch even a moment of that greatness.

This all sounds very lofty, and it is to varying degrees, but at its core, Affleck is still an entertainer. Air is a perfect airplane movie and that might be the best thing to be said of something with this pedigree right now. Alex Convery delivers, in his first script, a tightly constructed melodrama with a strong emotional core that Affleck knows exactly how to enliven and make the most of. The movie plays like gangbusters and will almost certainly be a staple of Dad Cinema if the crowd reactions are to be trusted.

Part of that appeal, though, might be the loftier ambitions that Affleck chases after in the movie. Meta-textually, after so many years of being in a cape for DC and in and out of the public spotlight for every reason and every which way, Affleck seems to be lost at sea just like his on-screen Phil Knight. Both are men whose blinding success came so early in their careers and are now, 1984 for Knight and 2023 for Affleck, wondering where to go from here. If Air is any sign of what’s to come from Affleck’s next steps, his legacy might be secured – even if he continues to use other stars to catch a little of their light.




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