Three years after lockdown, Ben Affleck’s Air signals another step forward for theatrical exhibition in the United States: besides the fact that the Saturday matinee I went to was packed—families spanning generations, and plenty of elderly people, who notoriously haven’t returned to cinemas since early-2020—this is the first movie that Amazon Studios has released since Late Night in 2019 that didn’t go directly or simultaneously to streaming. That logo of the Amazon city flowering up as the camera careens down into a wide shot of “AMAZON STUDIOS” was a familiar site for the second half of the 2010s, and usually indicated a decent movie (remember that they distributed most of the Woody Allen movies of the 2010s). But as soon as theaters closed, Amazon Studio’s offerings suddenly felt much more disposable and low-rent, never approaching the dismal quality of Netflix Originals, barely watchable, but then again, I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed Air as much as I did if I watched it at home.
I know I wouldn’t have: this is a thoroughly middlebrow movie, one I’ll never intentionally see again, but one I enjoyed going to see. The premise has been widely mocked as non-dramatic per se, the same complaints levied against Titanic before its epic run in 1997 and 1998; then again, Air doesn’t have a fictional peasant and princess to latch onto, just some sneaker executives who’d quickly become enormously wealthy. This has been made fun of as well, as if the story of capitalists coming up with a hit product that endures today is inherently… what? Immoral? Tacky? Boring? I’ll concede the latter point, because Air wouldn’t be worth seeing at all if it weren’t for the stacked cast of the few leading men in Hollywood left: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, and Chris Messina. Chris Tucker shows up for a few scenes, clearly improvising everything, while Viola Davis phones in another saintly mother figure.
Michael Jordan is the one person you don’t see in Air, unless you count the camera-shy stand-in, who makes an effort never to show his face, turning away like a vampire. Robert Richardson, the best working American cinematographer, is really what makes Air engaging, and provides a good example of a movie where the DP has as much creative input as the director, if not more, in composition. But not blocking: although the movie’s shot expertly, with signature Richardson panning close-ups to introduce locations, Affleck’s still an awkward director. The scenes with the stand-in and the Jordan family meeting with Nike are atrocious, and makes his “facelessness” all the more obvious. Just shoot him from behind like they did with the Harvey Weinstein stand-in in She Said!
Air is also guilty of a recent bad habit in American cinema: using low-res archival footage sourced from the internet—likely YouTube—not only in montages but diegetically: at one point, Damon’s watching a commercial on his tube TV that’s clearly pixelated and sourced from something like Kazaa. No budget indie movies I understand, but this? Babylon? Can’t some of the $90 million production budget go to transferring some VHS tapes? Matthew Maher, who made a real impression on me in Funny Pages last year, is a pleasant surprise here as designer Peter Moore, who, as an end title card informs us, died just a month before Air was announced. He’s been acting in film since 1999, debuting in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, but this and Funny Pages are the first real substantive roles I’ve seen for him.
The title cards at the end are egregious, two dozen too many, and with an especially absurd note about Jordan making hundreds of millions of dollars annually in passive income from the shoes, a card that almost makes you want to seek out the nearest Workers of the World meeting. But I wasn’t bothered by the premise itself, nor the near constant song cues, another feature of this movie that’s been widely criticized. It would’ve been unbearable at home, perhaps, but in a big theater with big sound? I like hearing “Blister in the Sun,” “In a Big Country,” and “Time After Time.” I’m beyond sick of movies set in the 1980s, but for an afternoon, Air did feel like that elusive “movie for adults” that’s allegedly disappeared from American multiplexes.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith