It’s tough to imagine a time when Nike wasn’t the first name in shoes, in particular basketball shoes. But in the ’80s, they were still trying to break into the sports shoe market, facing stiff competition from market leaders Adidas and Converse. Of course, we know how that would eventually turn out. The arrival of Michael Jordan and the creation of the Air Jordan shoe would revolutionize the industry, and the relationship between players and big business. But who wants to watch a movie about how Nike figured out how to make money selling sneakers? Well, you should, because Air is about a lot more than that and one of the best films of the year.
As sweet as a Michael Jordan game-winning shot at the buzzer, Air makes you forget that it largely takes place in boardrooms and centers on people talking on telephones. Set in the mid-1980s, the film largely centers on Sonny Vacarro (Matt Damon), who Nike has hired to save their failing basketball division, which they are on the verge of closing down. It’s Sonny’s job to scout the upcoming NBA draft and select the rookie talent that would be best to build brands around. So while others want to use the limited budget on a handful of prospects, including future NBA mid-carders like Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin, Sonny sees something in this scrawny kid from North Carolina: Michael Jordan. And Sonny wants to do something unprecedented, which is put the entire budget on Jordan and nobody else.
The thing is, Sonny has an entire wall of corporate malaise standing in his way. Nobody wants to go along with him on this foolish gambit. Invest in a…*gasp*…a guard? When everybody knows that big men rule the NBA? Ridiculous. Cautious advertising exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) doesn’t like the idea, nor does chatterbox colleague Howard White (Chris Tucker) who likes Sonny but thinks he’s gambling on a loser. But most importantly, Sonny has to convince Michael Jordan, who has zero interest in signing with Nike. His agent, the “Bird of Prey” David Falk (Chris Messina) is advising Jordan to stay away.
Air might have a script by newcomer Alex Convery, but it feels like an Affleck and Damon collaboration all of the way. Despite centering on a bunch of corporate types and one future NBA Hall of Famer, the film feels like it has some dirt beneath its nails. That is largely due to the central performance by Damon, who excels at playing underdogs with a vision nobody else can see. Except that Sonny isn’t the only one who sees the true potential in Michael Jordan. The other one who does is Jordan’s mother, Deloris, played Viola Davis at the personal request of MJ himself. If Sonny is going to convince Jordan to sign with Nike, he’s going to have to convince her that he also sees the greatness in her son and will fight to make sure he gets everything he’s due.
Affleck, in his first directorial effort since his one true creative failure, 2016’s Live by Night, is working in Steven Soderbergh/Aaron Sorkin territory here. His films have always had a certain slickness to them, but he has always been wise to lean on an extremely talented ensemble. Air is no different, as it slides easily between characters delivering uplifting monologues and grand speeches in rapid fire fashion. Affleck himself delivers a few of these as eccentric, colorful tracksuit-wearing Nike founder Phil Griffin, who started the company out of his garage, but now feels the pressure of running a huge corporation with shareholders to cater to. It’s easy to see Air as a statement about betting on the little guy, about taking chances, about bucking the status quo. The bulk of Affleck’s films have been about protagonists having to fight from underneath and achieve something seen by others as impossible. While I feel their last film The Last Duel is a bit underrated, I’d much rather see them making movies like Air because it feels like something Affleck and Damon are personally invested in. From their humble beginning on Good Will Hunting to ambitious endeavors like Project Greenlight and their newly-formed production label Artists Equity, the lifelong friends have always been about doing what’s best for the little guy. If Air is their mission statement going forward, then count me in.
Air also functions as the perfect pairing with recent Chicago Bulls doc, The Last Dance, which showed us Michael Jordan in all of his competitive glory, the fruits of the labors fulfilled. For fans of Jordan, Air sucks you in because all of these people are working hard to ensure that his greatness is given a chance to shine. We all know how it turns out, but what the film shows is how easily it all could’ve gone wrong. What would have happened to Michael Jordan if Sonny didn’t have the courage to stand up to his bosses? What would have happened if he couldn’t win over Jordan’s mother? Sure, Jordan would’ve been a huge NBA star anyway, but would he be the legend he is without Nike building his image? Maybe, but probably not.
With a soundtrack of familiar ’80s pop and hip-hop songs, likely pulled straight out of Affleck’s Spotify playlist, Air keeps the energy up through one conversation after the next. What some may find surprising is how funny and self-aware the movie is. Affleck is a riot as Griffin, a well-intentioned but delusional multi-millionaire who drives a sports car and somehow thinks he’s a man of the people. Also great in a small but pivotal role is Marlon Wayans as Hall of Fame player and Nike exec George Raveling, whose impact on Jordan’s decision is immeasurable. Of course, it goes without saying that Damon and Davis are great, especially in the one extended scene they share together as two people in the shadow of greatness.
It should be enough to know that Michael Jordan wouldn’t take such personal interest in a movie unworthy of his greatness. Air is more than deserving, with Affleck proving once again that he is a filmmaker who can be counted on in the clutch.
Air opens in theaters on April 5th.