Director: Ben Affleck
Screenplay: Alex Convery
Stars: Matt Damon (Sonny Vaccaro), Jason Bateman (Rob Strasser), Ben Affleck (Phil Knight), Chris Messina (David Falk), Viola Davis (Deloris Jordan), Julius Tennon (James Jordan), Damian Delano Young (Michael Jordan), Chris Tucker (Howard White), Matthew Maher (Peter Moore)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2023
Country: U.S.

It is hard to imagine a time when Nike was not at the center of the basketball world, but that is precisely what was happening in the mid-1980s, when the billion-dollar shoe giant had only a 17% share of the basketball shoe maket, which at the time was dominated by Adidas and Converse (Nike’s bread and butter was running shoes). This was, of course, before the introduction of Air Jordans, whose development is chronicled in Ben Affleck’s brisk and entertaining new film Air. The film takes place in 1984, when Michael Jordan was still in North Carolina after being recently drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and all the major shoe manufacturers were vying to sign him (although, interestingly, he was not the top choice). As we all know now, Nike ended up landing him by creating one of the most indelible and popular athletic shoes in history and also by changing history with its then unheard-of decision to give Jordan a percentage of each shoe sold, thus fundamentally changing the underlying economic structure of the athletic shoe market.

The screenplay by first-timer Alex Convery centers on Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who is hardly a household name, even to those who have worn Air Jordans for years. In the mid-1980s Sonny was a marketing executive for Nike, hired by CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) to scout out new talent for the company to sign. Despite looking like an ordinary, pudgy, middle-aged white man, Sonny has a knack for sniffing out new talent and a deep understanding of the game of basketball, which explains why he had such a strong feeling about Jordan and his potential not just as a player, but as a future icon of the sport. Sonny struggles to convince both Knight and marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), both of whom are convinced that it is too risky to use all the money budgeted for the basketball division to land Jordan, when normally they would sign three or four players. Sonny also has to deal with Jordan’s brash and profane agent, David Falk (Chris Missina), as well as Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), who is soft-spoken and intense, clearly focused on ensuring that her son gets the best deal and that his unique talents are justly rewarded. He finds support in Howard White (Chris Tucker), a vice president at Nike, and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), who coached Jordan as part of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

Sonny, who likes to gamble in Vegas, understands that the odds are against him, but he also understands that the kind of feeling he has about Jordan is a rare thing indeed and an opportunity not to be missed. One of the film’s key moments is when he watches video of Jordan’s 1982 NCAA championship game-winning shot when he was a freshman at North Carolina, an event so well-known at that point that it was taken for granted. However, Sonny sees in that moment what others looked right past: both his coach’s trust in feeding a skinny freshman the ball in the game’s waning seconds and Jordan’s utter confidence in himself. Where others see a talented player with a good future, Sonny sees an all-time great.

As with Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo (2017), Air is an unlikely historical success story, with underdogs pulling off the seemingly impossible under sometimes absurd circumstances. File it under “you can’t make this stuff up.” Granted, you have to turn off the part of your brain that keeps reminding you that you’re rooting for wealthy executives of a billion-dollar company to land an athlete so they can make billions more. It helps that Damon, working as an actor under Affleck’s direction for the first time (they are longtime friends who won Oscars for cowriting 1997’s Good Will Hunting), is so good at portraying both raw intelligence and ordinary approachability.

Affleck’s sharp direction gives us plenty of friction among the various characters that stays true to their individual perspectives. There is a great scene in which Rob Strasser, who otherwise comes to support Sonny’s endeavors to land Jordan, confides in him his desperation to connect with his 7-year-old daughter who he only gets to see once a month due to a recent divorce and how Sonny’s brash moves to secure his goal jeopardizes that relationship (Sonny, of course, has no family; he is wedded to basketball). There is also a hilariously profane scene in which Falk tears into Sonny over the phone for going around him and meeting directly with Jordan’s family, which demonstrates Falk’s intensity of purpose, but also the fundamental fear of irrelevance that lies just below his cocky façade. Every moment in Air crackles, and there isn’t a wasted one. The film moves along at a brisk pace and hits the right notes, giving us the sports-marketing movie we never knew we wanted.

Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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