REVIEW — “AIR”
An underdog story and love-letter to the 80s, AIR, director Ben Affleck’s compelling, triumphant, and inspiring Air Jordan swoosh saga, flies high and checks all the boxes.
In the early 80s, Nike was not yet the global footwear titan that it is today. The company was on offense all the time, capturing only 17% of basketball sneaker sales. Behind ADIDAS and Converse in the game, the fledgling division was desperate to sign a star to stay competitive in the basketball business and grow Nike beyond the running shoe market.
Set in and around Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon world headquarters in 1984, AIR follows Nike sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and his renegade quest to sign rookie Michael Jordan to a groundbreaking shoe deal.
It is a quest that puts Sonny at odds with Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), leads him to the Wilmington, NC home of James and Deloris Jordan (real-life husband and wife, Julius Tennon and Viola Davis), and changes the shoe industry and sports world forever.
Affleck directs this cast of high-caliber actors with a loose grip. He holds his shots tight on their faces to capture every ounce of truth and emotion, and allows each member of his ensemble to have their moment in the spotlight. Like a well-oiled basketball team, they each pass the ball and allow each other a chance to take their shot.
Affleck pulls double duty as director and actor, portraying Knight as a tantric, board-beholden CEO who may have lost his edge.
As David Falk, Jordan’s fiery, self-assured sports agent, Chris Messina delivers an epic, over-the-phone meltdown that is as hilarious as it is profane.
As Nike exec Rob Strasser, wise-cracking everyman Jason Bateman, an always welcome addition to any production, gets a tender moment as he relays the negative impact this deal could have on his life as a divorced dad if it were to fall through.
As Nike VP Howard White, Chris Tucker provides his signature fast-talking comic relief but with an added level of earnest wisdom and a side of southern charm.
As MJ’s steadfast and protective mom, Viola Davis is a calm-but-forceful negotiator who is determined to get her son his worth.
And as a paunchy and graying Vaccaro, Damon is more relatable than he has been in years. You can feel his excitement at the prospect of landing Jordan, see the fire in his eyes, and hear the conviction in his voice as he tells Deloris that he believes in her son.
However, Vaccaro’s entire mission is a costly gamble. Instead of signing several players like John Stockton or Charles Barkley, Sonny requests Nike spend their entire marketing budget on one man. He needs $500,000 to afford a player of MJ’s caliber and gets Knight to put everything on the line. If the deal fails, the basketball division at Nike will fold. With so much riding on the success of this deal, the inner circle at Nike plan and strategize the Jordan family meeting as if it were a complicated heist.
The whole film hinges on this meeting. Yet, while we all know the outcome, the tension is still enticing and builds momentum with each name drop, brand mention, and Air Jordan shoe reveal. The scene culminates with a powerful, barn-burner of a monologue delivered face-to-face by Damon in which he sells everyone on the goosebump-inducing significance of Michael Jordan’s extraordinary and eternal legacy.
Within these moments is where the film soars. AIR just does it. 4.5/5
Written by Alex Convery, AIR also stars Matthew Maher, Jay Mohr, and Marlon Wayans.
Rated R with a running time of 112 minutes, AIR opens only in theaters April 5, 2023.