Air Review: Ben Affleck’s Michael Jordan Movie Makes the Net
Director/star Ben Affleck and a sensational cast make what could be a dry sports marketing tale into something more.
Ben Affleck wants to make sure you know that his new movie as a director, Air, is set in 1984. The film opens with a blizzard of images and sounds from that time, ranging from Ronald Reagan’s reelection to the “Where’s the beef?” Wendy’s commercials, to just about any other specific visual cue you can think of from that year. Once that’s over, however, the needle drops pick up the slack almost to a fault: We hear the “you’re motoring” line from Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” in a shot of a car in motion. Meanwhile Big Country’s “In A Big Country” (from 1983, actually) blares over another shot of a car driving through the wilds of North Carolina.
It would get annoying—and occasionally does—if Air wasn’t such an entertaining film overall. The story of how a ragtag bunch of Nike execs wooed Michael Jordan to sign with them as he was on the cusp of launching his legendary career, putting their jobs and possibly the company’s entire basketball division on the line, has just enough humor and heart thanks to its sterling cast to get past the rough spots and nostalgia fouls.
In fact, this is also Affleck’s most confidently directed film since The Town, with the filmmaking giving the somewhat shaggy script and characters room to breathe. His potentially strangest choice—not seeing Jordan himself (played fleetingly by Damian Young) except in profile, from the back, or from a distance, and only hearing his voice twice—largely works too, save for one scene where the gimmick becomes a little awkward near the end.
Air starts off as the story of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, back with pal Affleck since their 2021 team-up in The Last Duel), a doughy, rumpled marketing director for Nike whose division is tasked with signing up-and-coming hoop stars to wear the company’s shoes. Almost all the really big prospects, however, are out of the price range that Nike wants to spend, and the rest just don’t get anyone in the department excited, least of all Vaccaro.
But one night, watching a tape of young Michael Jordan in action at UNC, the shoe executive has something like an epiphany and makes it his mission to sign the fledgling star, just as he’s turning pro, despite the fact that industry heavyweights Adidas and Converse will go after him as well. Vaccaro lobbies Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) to put everything they can into the push for Jordan, including designing his own shoe, the now-iconic Air Jordan.
Aside from the bigger competitors in the field, Vaccaro’s obstacles include Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), who’s simply looking for the biggest payday possible for his client, and most importantly, Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis), who makes all the decisions for her family and her son and is fiercely dedicated to getting the best for both.
Although Air has been marketing along the lines of movies like Moneyball, the latter film actually features more footage of its sport (baseball) than Air does. This is not a movie about basketball per se; this is a movie about marketing, and obsession, and taking big swings, mostly set in drab, wood-paneled offices as we watched sweating men hash out their plans.
Nonetheless, one is mostly captivated by the story thanks to the heartfelt work of Damon—whose Sonny has reduced his entire life to what he does—and the rest of the players. Affleck is both funny and exasperating as the twitchy, mercurial, eccentric Knight, while Jason Bateman’s marketing director Rob Strasser is, on the surface, the kind of slick corporate suit that Bateman has played to perfection before, only this time with more empathy and humanity. Chris Tucker is also sensational as Howard White, the “only brother in the building,” who knows how to play his role and make the Jordans feel at least partially at ease amidst the overwhelming whiteness of the company’s top team (the film also doesn’t really touch on the more unpleasant aspects of Nike’s history, but that would be a different film).
And then there’s Viola. Her Deloris Jordan is both inscrutable and kind, compassionate and carefully neutral, yet there’s no doubt that underneath it all is a spine of pure steel. In a movie where all the major characters get to give at least one big speech, with Damon’s in particular a standout, the Woman King star delivers a soliloquy toward the end of the film that not only is a bona fide showstopper, but literally changes Air into a different movie.
Up until then, Air is indeed entertaining and even gripping at times, but a thought still persists in one’s mind: All this over a sneaker? This is especially unavoidable as we’ve seen over the years that kids in underserved and underprivileged communities may actually endanger their own lives over wearing the latest and greatest on their feet. How much are we supposed to care about a bunch of middle-aged marketing guys trying to profit off this young, admittedly super-talented, player’s nascent career?
That’s when Viola turns it around. The camera close on her face as she speaks softly down a phone line (handset, wire, and all), and she lays out her terms and explains what this is really all about—and Air becomes a film about how much each of us is really worth to ourselves and those closest to us, and how to protect one’s most precious commodity, yourself, from the rapaciousness of others.
It’s a moment that briefly lifts Air, like Jordan himself, soaring above the court to sink the ball, from merely entertaining to genuinely great, and it elevates the closing scenes of the film as well. At one point in the film, Sonny Vaccaro says that everyone orbiting Jordan wants to touch his greatness. Air wants to touch it too, and Ben Affleck’s enjoyable slice of sports history manages to at least brush up against it.
Air opens in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.