The short of it: Air is a forgettable film with striations of (sometimes enjoyably) predictable dialogue, a cast bloated with Hollywood guy-legends you imagine you’d probably love to have a beer with, and a glaring lacuna – Michael Jordan is awkwardly shadowed out of the movie. 

The long of it: you are Ben Affleck and you face a puzzle. You are making a film about the Nike sponsorship deal with Michael Jordan that gave us the Air Jordan basketball shoe. The problem is that it is not 1984, and Michael Jordan is no longer 18. So what do you do? You have a few options. You could do what they did to Carrie Fisher in Rogue One and superimpose a CGI of her 21-year-old face onto the head of a double. You could follow Forrest Gump and plug the actors into manipulated original footage. Or you could just have someone else play Michael. 

Devices of the first and second kind are off the table, they are tacky and besides, you don’t have the budget. So why not the third? In The Hollywood Reporter’s recent cover story on him, Affleck argued that Jordan is just “too big”, and said before the film’s world premiere at South by Southwest festival in March that “there is no way I was ever going to ask an audience to believe that anybody other than Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan. Which was also out of my own naked self-interest, frankly, because I knew it would destroy the movie”. There is an accidental but suggestive ambiguity in this final clause. Did Ben Affleck, in hiding the great icon, embark on a doomed journey out of his love for the sport of basketball, knowingly destroying his own movie before it was even complete? Or is it that he saved his film the destruction it would have met, had he made of MJ a graven image? 

What he believes, of course, is that he saved his film; that gesturing at or simply showing, rather than portraying Michael, was the only way. I share Affleck’s hunch that having someone play the part would have been an image hard sold. But would it have been worse than what we actually got? Certainly the absence of Michael’s face and voice, his conspicuous scene-shyness, with the exception of some clips from the time (that, in my opinion, there ought to have been more of), have a destabilising effect. It is hard to make out whose story Air is meant to be telling. The film’s title implies it is a shoe. Affleck has at one time identified Jordan as its subject, and at another Jordan’s Mom. The film itself lands variously on Nike’s basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), the Jordan family; even Nike itself. 

Ben Affleck directing Air

And here is Air’s crucial tragedy. Many of America’s filmic self-portraits have told us that when you put middle-aged dudes in a room, they get it done. The trouble is that in Air, that motif (which more or less consumes the film whole) services the hollow idea that Nike is a company that ‘really cares’, and little else. We are told to believe that Nike was a troupe of cool, competent men, unique amid basketball giants like Adidas and Converse for the honesty and passion of its staff. And it is not just people that are exalted. The film’s scenes are interspersed with static shots of the company’s guiding corporate principles, which take on a kind of gnostic look. Nike’s CEO at the time, Phil Knight (played by Affleck), offers gobbets of Buddhist insight; the idea being, I think, that Nike won the deal because their commercial edge grew out of an antecedent Weltanschauung and a genuine integrity. 

The result is a flat-pack film consisting of recycled parts. Matt Damon seems tired, they all do. And none of them believably animates what they are saying with any conviction. Air is also busy with predictable moments: a montage plays to Cyndi Lauper; the whizz Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) turns maverick in the decisive meeting, ad-libbing a sickly speech and securing the deal; and of course the shoe’s designer is a genius weirdo in the company basement. “Let me worry about the fucking board” exclaims Affleck as Phil Knight – this one I practically mouthed before it happened. 

So what are we being peddled? Air seems purpose-built just to lionise an already ambient hyper-brand. Can such a film, as hard as it might try, really have a warm heart? The answer is that Ben Affleck thought so, and that his wonderland optimism brought him here. There might be some morsels of enjoyment, a weak pulse, but as the film’s name would suggest, under the bubble wrap there is only more nothing.