Synopsis – Follows the history of shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro, and how he led Nike in its pursuit of the greatest athlete in the history of sports: Michael Jordan.
My Take – Of course we all know Michael Jordan, without a doubt the best basketball player of all time, who was integral in popularizing the sport and the NBA around the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
But while one would have expected filmmakers rushing into making a biopic on the global cultural icon, this latest Ben Affleck-Matt Damon reunion, their second in recent years, after the unfairly underseen The Last Duel (2021), instead tells the story behind the creation of Air Jordan, one of the most influential shoes in the modern collective imagination, made to measure in the late 80s for the basketball player, who shortly thereafter would become an unparalleled champion in his sporting discipline, and at the same time revolutionizing the destiny of Nike.
Though for someone that doesn’t really keep up much with sports, or with shoes for that matter, might find a story about a ragtag group of executives in Nike’s nearly non-existent basketball shoe line, who come together to try and land Michael Jordan as a spokesperson for their basketball shoes against all odds, for a lack of better word – uninteresting.
But in the hands of director Ben Affleck, writer Alex Convery and an all-star cast of incredible performances, the resulting film is enthralling, informative, and quite entertaining. It’s an 80’s nostalgia piece, a sports drama, without any actual sports being played.
Sure, it doesn’t reach the heights of Affleck’s best directing works like Argo (2012) and The Town (2010), yet it still thoroughly engaging and surprisingly emotional. It’s a total crowd-pleaser, and a return to form for him as a filmmaker, following the messy crime drama Live by Night (2016).
Yes, the physical role of Michael Jordan is actually quite small throughout the film, we only see his figure, and not the player’s face, through carefully concealed shots. But what might seem like an odd choice actually adds to the mystique that is Michael Jordan. This one is like Moneyball (2011) for a new generation, and one of the most entertaining films of the year so far.
Set in 1984, the story follows Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a frumpy Nike exec scouting young talent for the company’s fledgling basketball division, which had a rather tiny budget to sign NBA players to sneaker deals. The Oregon-based company was known first and foremost for its running shoes, while sports-shoe giants Converse and Adidas dominated the world of basketball.
But with the scrappy upstart looking for new channels of expansion to compete, Sonny decides to woo just one player, the up-and-coming court star Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young). The incoming NBA rookie who had just been the third pick in the draft, was believed to be signing with Adidas, the dominant brand in Black culture at the time, and had a lot more money, but Vaccaro saw something in Jordan.
Ignoring the advice of his boss, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Nike’s NBA liaison Howard White (Chris Tucker) and Jordan’s own aggressive agent David Falk (Chris Messina), Vaccaro travels to Jordan’s family home in North Carolina on a risky mission to speak directly with Jordan’s parents, James (Julius Tennon) and Deloris (Viola Davis), to convince them for a meeting with their son and to express how he sees something in that young man that everyone else missed.
As we know going into the film that Vaccaro ultimately succeeds in signing Jordan, who along with Nike, has reaped billions in profits from sales of his Air Jordan sneaker line. Hence, the daunting task both director Ben Affleck and writer Alex Convery had was to build out the story, engage audiences and make them care whether a corporation and professional ball player can make millions.
But like the Bennett Miller directed and the Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin written Moneyball (2011), a baseball film that built drama out of statistics and front-office negotiations, the film works because it grounds its story in compelling characters. Here, Convery’s script wisely centers the focus not on the executives but on the everyday workers who have everything to lose. Resulting in a compelling tale, with the best portions featuring the men toiling to land the deal.
Even director Affleck’s documentary-like style keeps the energy up; a sequence where the entire team pitches Jordan’s family on Nike is rich with suspense and will feel completely genuine to anyone who’s sat in such meetings. The film also boasts a surprising amount of heart, though it obviously helps to be familiar with Jordan’s story.
When the film introduces a climactic montage about Jordan and you see the news footage of his father’s murder, you feel that loss and recognize what it took for him to come back from that tragedy and compete for another world championship.
Director Affleck also makes the deliberate choice not to show Jordan’s face in this film, and I think it’s the right one, even though it’s a bit distracting at first. However, I understand the director’s belief that seeing a young actor who clearly isn’t Jordan might be even more distracting.
Of course, it helps that the entire cast here is fantastic. Matt Damon gives a cordially undemanding performance, Ben Affleck brings his A-Game as always, Chris Tucker brings his own set of comforting charm and Jason Bateman delivers a deeply compelling performance with a back story that really added to the stakes of the film.
Chris Messina is also having the time of his life delivering profane screeds as Jordan’s agent, whose love-hate relationship with Vaccaro provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. Viola Davis is also iconic as always.
In other roles, Matthew Maher, Marlon Wayans, Jay Mohr, Tom Papa, Gustaf Skarsgard, Joel Gretsch and Julius Tennon are highly effective. On the whole, ‘Air’ is an entertaining crowd-pleaser powered by its heartfelt approach and star-studded cast.
Directed – Ben Affleck
Starring – Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman
Rated – R
Run Time – 111 minutes