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In Search of a Lost Film Industry

Air (Ben Affleck, 2022, USA)

by Filipe Furtado

          In the last few years, a subgenre that has become recurrent in American cinema: the behind-the-scenes capital film dealing with famous products, big companies, specific victories of well-known brands, the old cinebiography migrating to what now we can call an entrepreneur cinema. It is a film model that combines the self-praise of backers (the increase in such fictions has been made exponential after the large entrance of Silicon Valley in the area) with the highly recurring belief in the strength of the dramatization of real cases. Air, directed, produced and starring Ben Affleck, is a good example of such movies, not the least because it's more well put-together than others and has a slightly more ambitious foundation - talent and attempts to justify it sometimes only reinforce its failure..

          Air portrays the negotiations that led Nike to hire Michael Jordan before he stepped onto the professional basketball court for the first time as its main commercial figurehead, which would eventually lead the company to become the leader in the sneaker market. It's the story of an executive (Matt Damon) with the vision to do something outside the box and the institutional support he received. Jordan is the central figure for this mythology, and he is carefully kept out of the picture. Even when the family goes to have their big meeting with the company, we only see occasional uncompleted shots of a young black man present in the room whom the movie prefers to avoid fully giving form (most of the negotiations are filtered through the mother played by Viola Davis, whose casting alone reinforces how this movie is a carefully thought-out commodity).  The athlete is the most important figure in the business and therefore too big for the movie about him. For Air to eulogize the system disruptively, he needs to be held up as an unrepresentable symbol..

          When Affleck was promoting the movie, he consistently brought into the conversation his new production company, Artists Equity, and its promise to promote a wider profit split with the top names on the creative team, as well as his efforts to ensure that Amazon gave his " grown-up" movie a wide commercial release beyond streaming. It's not too hard to notice the effort to equate the movie and the production company, the characters' entrepreneurship with that of Affleck and Damon. So this is a letter of intent, less about sneakers than about rethinking how Hollywood operates today. The climax of Air revolves around the Jordan family's efforts to secure Michael a share of the profits from the sneaker that bears his name, and the movie makes a lot of noise about how the terms of the contract made Jordan the world's first billionaire athlete. The parallel is fairly obvious, as is the way Air remains married to an overwhelmingly elitist view of labor relations.

          The praise Air seeks is for its stars' own efforts to seek a privileged and more hand-crafted creative space within the broad framework of American cinema. To do this, it needs to continuously imagine Nike not as a large, successful company, but as a relatively small office dealing with giants like Adidas (there are multiple references to the German company's 1940s relationship with the Nazi government). Affleck and his collaborators shot the company's headquarters to reinforce this intimate aspect, and the scenes where Damon orders a new sneaker add to the handmade side of the creation, highlighted by the presence of the great Matthew Maher as the designer. The movie tries hard to sell this buddy conspiratorial aspect of the action.

          Air is in some ways reminiscent of Ford vs. Ferrari, also starring Damon, about the car manufacturer's efforts to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This behind-the-scenes look at the tenuous space between sporting and corporate environments was also a self-congratulation piece about Hollywood, in this case about how the dedication and good craftsmanship of the American film industry could impose a creative victory over the great symbolic bogeyman (Ferrari, despite the title, is as little in the picture as Jordan is here). Ford vs Ferrari was a less exciting movie than Air, in its best parts, manages to be, but also less vile. Perhaps because its focus was more on creating than selling an image.

          It says a lot about Air that the movie's most memorable performance comes from Chris Messina as Jordan's agent, David Falk, always ready to unleash one more insult but whose presence remains malleable, someone who evidently can't afford to believe in anything but his client's profit. Falk has his place in the recent history of American cinema; he was the mastermind behind Space Jam, Jordan's attempt to cross over into film, a lousy movie of enduring popularity and a milestone in the erasure of the distance between cinema and advertising. That the main creative force behind the movie is an agent explains a lot about it.

          There is nothing in Space Jam which allows itself to exist beyond selling products, images and people. It's a childish film, while Affleck prides himself on thinking of his film as an all-grown-up film resistance, but the logic of his images is the same. The final sequence uses one of American music's biggest hits of 1984, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," in the same uplifting tone that conservative advertisers and politicians have done since the period. There is an ironic desire for one last wink to the viewer, but one that ultimately, in the logic of the quotation marks, only reinforces the overall tenor of the movie.

          As far as its relationship with the movie industry is concerned, Air is less a forward-looking piece than a longing look at the past. This is already clear in the constant use of nostalgic references, especially in the incessant soundtrack that, in addition to the hits of the time, such as Springsteen's song, incorporates many songs from films of the mid-1980s: Beverly Hills Cop, Risky Business, Desperately Seeking Susan, Body Double. There is a desire to go back in time to an idea of a supposedly more artistic and humane Hollywood - no wonder it is a star power movie not only led by two veteran stars, but loaded with the screen presence of Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans. The Nike president played by Affleck himself is the ideal of a studio boss, concerned but understanding, ready to fight with the board of directors (always kept out of the picture) to secure the vision of his charges. The movie reaches its climax when he decides to take a risk and give Jordan his percentage. The triumph of the healthy studio willing to forgo a share of the profits for a greater work.

          If Air is a somewhat depressing movie, it stems very much from this confusion. Affleck as a director is not someone devoid of talent, the movie struggles a little to turn a contract signing into a cinematic spectacle while still remaining quite engaging moment to moment. But beyond being a confusing allegory, it sinks deeper and deeper into this space where portfolio and creation blend into the same thing. Its imagination of a benign capital only reinforces our own hell.

June, 2023

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