Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon Reunite On “Air,” Their First Film Since 1997, and It’s a Big Old Fashioned Hit

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The movie everyone wanted this Oscar season and couldn’t find is here. “Air” is the first movie made by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon since we first met them in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” It’s also the first potential Best Picture nominee of the new season.

“Air” opens April 5th in wide release in theaters around the country even though it was made by Amazon Studios for their platform. Amazon realized they’ve got an old fashioned hit, the kind of film audiences will adore, and changed the release plan. You want to see this movie in a theater. There are super heroes, but none of them wear capes. They wear sneakers (bring yours). “Air” is funny, and moving, and surprising with tremendous acting from an A-list cast.

We kind of forget that Ben Affleck is a good director. Recently all his headlines have been about Jennifer Lopez. But remember, Ben made “Argo,” “The Town,” and “Gone Baby Gone” — three films most directors would want on their resumes. “Argo” won Best Picture. But this is the first movie he’s directed starring himself and Damon, reuniting them on screen. (They appeared in a 2021 Ridley Scott movie, “The Last Duel,” not exactly together and best forgotten.)

We heard and read that “Air” had a standing ovation at South by Southwest this past weekend, but you always wonder if that acclaim comes from festival madness. Well, “Air” got the same ovation tonight at the Warner Discovery theater for a packed, invited audience that included all kinds of influencers, actors, showbiz types I spotted “SNL” star Heidi Gardner in the huge room.

“Air” is the story of how Nike landed Michael Jordan as their celebrity spokesperson before he even began playing in the NBA. A sneaker movie, you say? No, a “sneaky” movie because it’s about the people, not the footwear, and it’s constructed in such a way that you come to care about these people tremendously during the two hour run.

Affleck himself playing Nike founder Phil Knight but he’s supporting several gigantic performances. Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro the pudgy non athlete who brought the Jordans into Nike, Viola Davis and her real life husband Julius Tennon as Jordan’s parents, plus Chris Messina as Michael Jordan’s volcanic agent, and Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, and Matthew Maher as the Nike team.

The group of them are sensational– watch for Best Ensemble nods in 2024. Just as he did in “Argo,” Affleck knows how to move these people through tight spaces like offices and warren like rooms, bringing out drama and comedy at the same time. There are no car chases or bank robberies or daring escapes. Affleck simply plays them like a chamber orchestra, building and building momentum as Vaccaro chases the Jordans and appeases Phil Knight, who doesn’t think he has the money to lure Michael Jordan away from Adidas and Converse.

Of course we all know what happened in 1984: Nike rebranded with Air Jordans and the rest was history. Vaccaro was right (so was Michael’s mother Deloris) that Jordan would become the greatest basketball player of all time. They made millions together, and do so to this day. But “Air” the movie has no commercial connection to Nike. The athletic company has no investment in the film and wasn’t even so keen on it when the idea was first floated. But Affleck met with Jordan, who ultimately gave his approval. (He also has no financial interest in it or editorial control.)

The screenplay is by Alex Convery, it’s his first. The cast and director added to it and shaped it up but it’s his. and has the luxury of taking its time when needed. You can feel the movie is full of “air,” giving each actor big moments and enough backstory that they make an instant connection with the audience. The film is also helped by a very smart jukebox of early 80s hits that help position us in a time and place before cell phones and when Apple computers were just boxes blinking with promise. Damon is at the top of his game, so is Davis, and Chris Messina finally gets a showcase no one will forget.

Four stars, two thumbs up, 21 gun salute. If this doesn’t get Matt Damon an Oscar for acting (he and Ben have them for writing “Good Will Hunting”) I don’t know what will.

Watch the Q&A following the screening here. Yes, that’s me toward the end asking Matt Damon about gaining and losing weight for the role.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedmanhttps://www.showbiz411.com
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
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