Directed by Ben Affleck.
Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Damian Young, Matthew Maher, Gustaf Skarsgård, Barbara Sukowa, Jay Mohr, Joel Gretsch, Michael O’Neill, Asanté Deshon, Billy Smith, Al Madrigal, Jackson Damon, Dan Bucatinsky, Jessica Green, Gabrielle Bourne, Joshua Funk, Andy Hirsch, Jeff Cook, Albert Stroth, and Mackenzie Rayne.
Follows the history of shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro, and how he led Nike in its pursuit of the greatest athlete in the history of basketball: Michael Jordan.
The year is 1984, and Michael Jordan (arguably the greatest professional basketball player of all time) has yet to step foot on an NBA court. Matt Damon’s Nike apparel player scout Sonny Vaccaro enters a convenience store (painstakingly re-created to authentically match the era, right down to athletes on cereal boxes), also casually engaging in conversation with the cashier about basketball, who believes that Michael Jordan won’t make much of a splash for himself or the Chicago Bulls. It’s difficult to imagine people not realizing that excellence from the beginning, but it allows Ben Affleck’s Air (coming from a script by Alex Convery) to tell an inspiring and rousing story about those that did see something special in him from his high school and college games.
Perhaps even greater is it means that Air doesn’t have to function as a standard biopic about a celebrity’s entire life or even its ragtag team of Nike employees working together alongside Sonny’s risky determination to bet the future of the company’s basketball shoe line department on not only signing Michael Jordan to a lucrative deal but branding the shoes around his identity and team, even if it means breaking a rule regarding the NBA’s color for shoes (at least 50% has to be white) and paying for out of their pockets every time.
Sitting inside meetings where no one has any ambition or a finger on the basketball scene pulse, Sonny takes his grievances to CEO Phil Knight (played by director Ben Affleck), a head honcho who has become more reserved and lost his edge when it comes to taking major gambles. As a filmmaker, Ben Affleck sidesteps the awkwardness of convincing viewers to cheer on a corporation. Sure, there are competitors such as German-owned Adidas (currently in ownership samples following a tragic loss, although maybe not too tragic considering the former CEO was a Nazi) and Converse portrayed as either out of touch or greedy villains, but the screenplay for Air seems more concerned with the stagnation and failings that can come from a corporation becoming complacent, unable to innovate through new visions and form a bond with the talent they get into business with.
While Michael Jordan is questionably given the She Said Harvey Weinstein treatment of only observing him (as played by Damien Young) from the back of his head (a frustrating creative decision that robs him of greater purpose and emphasis as a person and character here, but also somewhat understandably so given that it would be challenging to capture with such limited screen time anyway), it is made apparent by his mom Deloris Jordan (the reliably outstanding Viola Davis) who also greatly believes in her son, he has no interest in signing with Nike; they have the lowest market share, they aren’t hip, and they most likely can’t match offers from the other companies (who are willing to throw in a luxury vehicle per his request) unless they wager the house on him.
This prompts Sonny to get together with marketing expert Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), brand representative Howard White (Chris Tucker), who can relate to players through his experience as a player before injuries derailed his career, and unsung hero designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) who unfortunately passed away a month before Air was announced as a project, to put their heads together and craft the perfect shoe that encapsulates individualism and Michael Jordan as a player, and something that can be fitted for his on-court preferences. It’s also that focus on envisioning and creating a product tied to a specific person, bending and breaking the rules to develop a great product that keeps that aspect engaging regardless of one’s level of enthusiasm toward shoes.
Meanwhile, Sonny has to chip away at Phil’s skepticism about spending an exorbitant amount of money on this deal, power his way through hilariously heated arguments with Michael Jordan’s agent John Falk (Chris Messina) that involves threats of eating testicles, and finds a bit of wisdom from college basketball coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) that becomes paramount to Sonny delivering his own prophetically and rapturously crowd-pleasing speech directly to a young 18-year-old Michael Jordan (cut together with a highlight reel of all things Michael Jordan).
It may sound like there’s much going on in Air, but Ben Affleck is a sharp director skilled at keeping the story clean, gliding through the air, and buzzing with energy so that every bit of pressure from landing this deal comes together. He has assembled a talented ensemble that feels destined to ping-pong snappy dialogue off one another, with meaningful moments peppered in reminding Sonny of how many jobs are at stake and that his cavalier risk-taking could have terrible repercussions for his co-workers, some of which are struggling fathers or amusingly working their way through a midlife crisis.
Expanding on that point, choosing an acting MVP is practically a fool’s errand, but Matt Damon is captivating as a man making bold moves in the name of trust in his gut, compulsively ambitious with taking Nike to new heights. He and Ben Affleck continue to have electric chemistry while his scenes with Viola Davis ground his character and bring up important discussions regarding companies profiting off young players. Admittedly, there is justification for wondering if the story would be stronger and more relatable if it were entirely from a parent’s perspective in Deloris Jordan. There is room to dedicate more time to the Jordan family, but what is here is insightful and comfortable addressing serious topics that will inevitably go on to change the sports world. It’s a breath of fresh air approach for telling a familiar biopic story.
Every square space of Robert Richardson’s cinematography highlights office spaces, culture, and fashion in 1984 to a lived-in, referential degree that operates somewhere between nostalgia and an organic depiction of the times. Even the needle drops, which are generally obvious pop hits, fit so well that it’s hard to hate on them. There is also a decent amount of fan service (at one point, the Chicago Bulls entrance theme plays), but it’s matched with a feeling of sincerity across the two-hour running time.
That’s also one way of saying the film makes up for some missing character depth by functioning as pure entertainment through the eccentric personalities caught up in negotiating this deal. Every directorial choice from Ben Affleck smartly plays into Air‘s momentum, which overcomes a conventional structure to soar through the air with the force of a Michael Jordan slamdunk.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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