Review
Culture
3 min read

Don't stop believin'

Air is a biopic you can believe in, says Yaroslav Walker, thanks to an awesome soundtrack and the hint of deeper themes.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A woman stands in a kitchen diner hold a phone with a cord.
Viola Davis negotiating down the line.
Warner Bros

Air should not work as a film. A sports biopic that barely has any actual sport in it, but has plenty of shoe design. A plot that revolves around the character of Michael Jordan (considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time, if not the greatest athlete of all time) which goes as far as to show the back of his head until the end credits, when stock footage takes over. A film that drops a number of hints about interesting character development (Matt Damon’s gambling, Jason Bateman’s daughter), and then never follows them up. None of this should add up to much…and yet it does. 

Mark Kermode (very much this reviewer’s lodestar of critique) has often opined that you know a biopic is doing its job when it makes you invested in a field you know nothing about. Senna makes you care about motorsport. Cinderella Man makes you care about boxing. Well, Air genuinely made me care about corporate sponsorship and shoe design…and I certainly wasn’t expecting that! 

The script is fondue levels of cheesiness, Matt Damon gives a climactic speech which simply oozes baked Camembert.

The direction is fine – Affleck has shown that he can be perfectly competent as an actor/director, and he does a fine job. The script is fondue levels of cheesiness, Matt Damon gives a climactic speech which simply oozes baked Camembert, but is also laugh out loud funny on more than one occasion. The performances are all on point: Matt Damon and Viola Davis can pull-off earnest roles in their sleep, and Affleck and Bateman deliver some decent ‘straight-man’ material. Affleck also demonstrates his directorial skills with shrewd and limited use of actors who can over-stay their welcome (Chris Tucker…small doses). 

However, the thing that sells the film to me is the soundtrack. The film is one big nostalgia-trip, and I loved it for that. I have long championed the theory that the 1980s was the best decade for popular music, and this film confirms my theory. The moment the Violent Femmes started to play I was sold. Cindy Lauper, Run-D.M.C, Springsteen, The Alan Parsons Project! BLISS! Throw in a Smiths and a Bowie track and I’d be giving this film an Oscar! 5 stars (but only because I’m listening the soundtrack at this very moment). 

Air hints at some deeper themes (although it does little more than hint) and one of these is the power of belief, the power of having faith in something. Affleck’s shoe-mogul, Phil Knight, has had faith in himself to build up Nike as a successful brand – and now spouts lazy quasi-Buddhist aphorisms. Davis’ Deloris Jordan has absolute faith in her son’s sporting ability, and refuses to allow it to be overlooked. Damon’s Sonny (a talent scout for possible sponsorship opportunities) is a gambler – he has belief in his own luck, his own scrappy attitude. He shoots craps in Vegas and demands his bosses back him because of his gut: ‘This is what I do here, and I really feel it this time!’ He truly believes in the value and power of sport to change his fortunes, and to change the world. 

From a Christian perspective it raises some interesting ideas, but doesn’t raise them quite high enough. The Christian life is one of belief, one of faith, one of ‘taking a chance’. Yet, the chance the Christian takes is not really a gamble, not a roll-of-the-dice, but a relationship. The Christian takes a chance, but it is taking a chance on love. Whereas the characters of Air take a chance on the sporting ability of a yet un-tested Michael Jordan, the Christian finds a certain surety in the loving embrace of Jesus Christ. Having religious faith, having Christian faith, is so often mischaracterised as a blind gamble – rather it is a relationship with one who loves us unconditionally, and so is not as irrational as assuming one can win shooting dice, but is the truest and most sensible thing one can do. 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.