Producers: David Ellison, Jesse Sisgold, Jon Weinbach, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Madison Ainley, Jeff Robinov, Peter Guber and Jason Michael Berman   Director: Ben Affleck  Screenplay: Alex Convery Cast: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Matthew Maher, Marlon Wayans, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Jay Mohr, Gustaf Skarsgård, Julius Tennon, Joel Gretsch, Barbara Sukowa, Jessica Green, Dan Bucatinsky and Damian Young   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: B

Do you recall how Jesus appeared in the 1959 “Ben-Hur”?  An actor—actually an opera singer—named  Claude Heater played him, but his face was never shown; you saw him only from the back.  There was a practical reason for this: a British law of the time reportedly prohibited Jesus’ face being seen on screen if he were merely a “secondary character.” 

You might say that a similar rationale—not legal in this case, but dramatic—animated Ben Affleck’s decision not to show the face of actor Damian Young, who plays basketball superstar Michael Jordan in “Air.”  Young appears in several scenes, but is shown only from the side or rear, with his face obscured.  He’s never portrayed on the court; for that Affleck relies on archival footage and stills.  The reason, Affleck explains, is that Jordan is too singular, too iconic a figure to be “recreated” on film. 

Actually the two situations are oddly alike, because Affleck has elevated Jordan to mythic status.  And to make matters even more peculiar, at one point the director and editor William Goldenberg insert a montage that turns Jordan into a sort of media martyr, showcasing the criticism he endured and the tragedies he suffered during his life.  What Affleck intends as a gesture of respect becomes something very close to hagiographical cliché.

But setting aside what’s really an observation about hero-worship, the fact is that “Air,” like the recent “Tetris,” is really not about a game (a video phenomenon in that movie, pro basketball in this one), but a subject even more definitively American: making money.  What Affleck and Alex Convery, the screenwriter, offer is a fable of can-do capitalism, focusing on one of the biggest elements of the American economic system operative today—the sports industry.

Or fables, actually.  One is of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the beleaguered head of the basketball division at industry-underdog Nike, who’s desperate to turn the tables on his bigger rivals at Adidas and Converse by securing rookie Michael Jordan, whom he’s convinced is going to be a mega-phenomenon in the NBA, as the face of Nike’s newly-designed shoe, which will eventually be dubbed Air Jordan.

The second fable involves Jordan himself, who becomes the emblem of a new kind of sports star, one who benefits financially by reaping a percentage of the profits from the sale of items, like shoes, that are associated with them, rather than just receiving a lump sum payment for their services as spokespersons.  In that respect, though it’s hard to think of Jordan as an underdog now, that’s how the film depicts him back in 1984, despite his potential.  And his success in extracting this financial concession from Nike’s founder Phil Knight (Affleck) as a condition of his signing with the company—or, more accurately, the success of Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis), who insisted on it—was a game-changer for pro sports across the board, and is now becoming a part of college athletics as well.  Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable, of course.

What’s not up for debate is that “Air” proves a crowd-pleasing tale of the triumph of the little guy (or guys) against powerful representatives of the corporate status quo, or that it offers another choice role for Damon in a long line of them.  He makes the most of it; in his hands Vaccaro is a rumpled, passionate believer who will stop at nothing to secure Jordan’s signature, including travelling to talk directly to his mother (a no-no in the business, as it will offend the young man’s agent, played with hilarious self-regard by Chris Messina, in one of his best performances ever). 

Damon and Messina are joined not only by Affleck, who does a fine seriocomic turn as a fellow torn between a board obsessed with the bottom line and his own preferences, which lean toward risk-taking and a Buddhist love of serenity, but Jason Bateman as Nike’s harried director of publicity, Chris Tucker as a voluble colleague and advisor to Vaccaro, and Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, the actual designer of the shoe that changed the sports apparel business.  Marlon Wayans also makes a strong impression as George Raveling, the ex-Olympics coach whom Vaccaro consults in his pursuit of the superstar  (In the usual fashion of today’s fact-based movies, we get nifty little closing captions about the futures of the various players.)

But even among such a deft group Davis stands out, embodying the steely mother determined to secure for her son everything that she believes he deserves.  Convery cannily sets up a couple of sequences in which Deloris, primed by Vaccaro, meets with the boards of Adidas and Converse to discuss the possibility of Michael accepting their offers, and the mere look in Davis’ eyes is enough to tell viewers what she’s thinking as the executives (including Jay Mohr) deliver their spiels.

There are stumbles in “Air,” something oddly appropriate in a movie about a game in which a slight misstep on the court can make all the difference in the outcome.  The culminating meeting of the Jordans and the Nike staff, for instance, in which everything is on the line for Vaccaro, overdoes the comedy in terms of Bateman and Affleck, while veering into mawkishness in Damon’s impassioned plea to Michael, with that prophetic montage inserted as well.  But the actors manage to sell Convery’s excesses, here and elsewhere.

The picture is handsomely if not spectacularly mounted– François Audouy’s production design and Charlese Antoinette Jones’s costumes capture the flavor of the period nicely, as does Andrea von Foerster’s score, peppered as it is with pop songs of the era; and Robert Richardson’s cinematography (as well as Goldberg’s editing) emphasize the intensity of the action, with frequent close-ups and busy office scenes contrasted with others of individual characters worrying in isolation over their choices.                                   

It’s debatable whether you should be cheering what Sonny and Deloris actually accomplish in “Air,” but the film is so adroitly managed that for a while, at least, you’ll set aside your doubts and feel the inspirational rush the film is calculated to deliver.