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Sneaker Game



AIR. I went on at some length recently about the work of Ben Affleck (Director Affleck), particularly Argo (2012), both as pertains to Tetris and to the shifting focus of culture in the context of mainstream cinema. The logic therein was most likely fallacious and founded on false premises, but I can at least say that its inclusion was not entirely accidental. Because now, in the midst of the third (?) Affleck renaissance, he returns — as director, producer and supporting actor — with Matt Damon in tow to retell the story of a shoe deal as a grand tale of self-worth, reclamation and the strength of individuals in the face of corporate greed.

There is an effortless, quiet solidity to the planning and execution of Air that belies the difficulty of rendering this story with this level of drama: Writer Alex Convery hasn't added a car chase (although Affleck's running togs could be called a wreck) and we know the outcome, but the craft and performance here, both in behind and in front of the camera, make us somehow excited to get the (foregone) conclusion.

In 1984, Nike has nearly become a billion-dollar company. Still led by the Shoe Dog, Phil Knight (Affleck), it has gone public, leaving Knight answerable to a board of directors and less able to exercise his particular brand of boardroom Buddhism. Despite the brand's tremendous overall success, it founders in the basketball shoe market, trailing weakly behind Converse and Adidas. The entire situation leaves Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), Nike's roundball guru, struggling to turn a minimal budget into a market-share revolution. In the long dark night of game tape review, though, Vaccaro has a revelation about an incoming rookie named Michael Jordan and will stake his career on bringing him to Nike.

Again, we all know what happened, maybe even how it happened. And maybe it didn't happen just as it's been brought to the screen; I don't care. Because the accomplishment here is in interpolation, the construction and understanding of characters and their relationships and in putting it all together in a good looking, fast moving, funny, heartfelt package.

In whatever period this is of Affleck and Damon's careers, they've often seemed to be in a competition to see who can further disrupt their own celebrity and erstwhile heartthrob status. Damon has pretty consistently chosen doofus roles and, in recent years, challenged us with some deeply ambiguous protagonists. Affleck, meanwhile, seems to have relaxed into something of a retired-ballplayer self-deprecation, putting on wigs and defying the audience to make more fun of him than he is himself.

This sort of on-screen prank war has been generally successful due to the skill and undeniable charm of its players, but it can also create a disconnect between the stars we're watching and the characters they are supposed to be playing. In Air, though, both actors seem to have found near-perfect vessels for self-lampooning and sympathy. We buy Vaccaro as an out of shape talent scout with a genuine gift, who feels unmoored within the shifting structure of his employer. He knows who he is, but he doesn't always know what to do about it. Still, he is capable of summoning speeches of such unmitigated clarity and passion that we cannot help but believe. And Affleck, with another gloriously questionable wig and bare feet up on the desk, summons an improbable, entirely believable combination of business savvy, self-preservation and kindness (yeah, I said it) that makes perfect sense for the founder and CEO of a company that literally changed the world.

Put on the other end of a phone or across a boardroom table from Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), though, those two are constantly on the verge of dissolution; rightly so. As Michael's mother, Davis presents as a true believer, both in the generational talent of her son and in her own ability to defend and enrich him. She becomes a true agent for change, a quiet crusader against the commodification of athletes by the league and the companies that supposedly raise them up.

Michael Jordan changed the game and Nike changed the way we see it, but Air would have it that neither could have happened were it not for Mrs. Jordan and Vaccaro negotiating a revolutionary peace in service of those revolutionary changes.

Matthew Maher is perfectly cast as basement dwelling shoe designer-cum-alchemist Peter Moore. Chris Messina seems to be having the absolute time of his life as the prototypical asshole sports agent David Falk. And it seems unfair that I haven't mentioned Jason Bateman as Nike marketing head Rob Strasser (maybe it's because I don't love marketing guys).

Air manages to parallel the style and ferocity with which Michael played the game, without trying to ape it cinematically. Although saturated with '80s detail, it leaves it in the background, making the atmosphere of the piece that much more immersive. Meanwhile, it moves us from beat to beat with a cunning urgency that only professionals can achieve. R. 112M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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