'Air' review: Origin of Michael Jordan's Nike deal is a slam dunk
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
An honest, invigorating dramatization of how the once decaying Nike sports division courted Michael Jordan, Ben Affleck’s “Air” shoots and scores. Joining the subgenre of sports movies where the main action takes place off the court, “Air” features an all-star cast working in complete harmony. Not since “Moneyball” has understanding the mathematics and intense closed door meetings been this satisfying and Affleck’s directorial instincts are well suited for unveiling the Air Jordan origin story, a brand that would catapult Nike past its competitors and reshaped the entire industry.
The cynic in me could easily pick apart how “Air,” on paper, is a conventional by-the-numbers puff piece for a massively profitable shoe company who, let’s say, doesn’t need the extra publicity, but Affleck’s attuned knowledge and appreciation for the grit and tenacity that went into securing this unprecedented deal makes it hard to root against. Outfitted with a soundtrack that’s needle drops feature everything from Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” “Air” understands exactly the type of feel it's trying to create and it helps Viola Davis is absolutely radiant playing Jordan’s mother and dealmaker.
As is Matt Damon, playing the whip-smart, basketball loving sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, a man tasked with finding the best rising star in the NBA draft who will let Nike endorse them. The year is 1984 and Adidas and Converse are the rage with track suits and RUN-DMC songs populating the cultural airwaves. Nike just isn’t hip with the times. But Vaccaro sees something his fellow executives, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and eventual Air Jordan brand VP Howard White (Chris Tucker - a welcome return), don’t and is willing to bet the entire sports division budget on one emerging talent: 21-year-old college superstar Michael Jordan.
Of course, Nike CEO Phil Knight (played by Affleck) hates the idea and is feeling the pressure from his board of advisors, but he also understands the company didn’t make it without taking the occasional risk and decides putting all the company’s resources into securing Jordan is worth the gamble. Here, “Air” makes a strategic and welcome shift in that it doesn’t feature Jordan (we only see his profile and hear him briefly on the phone) negotiating the deal, but his parents Dolores and James (Davis and her real-life husband Julius Tennon) who represented him through the entire process (alongside a cranked-up Chris Messina who hilariously embodies Jordan's agent David Falk). There’s one sequence near the end of the film that very well could earn Davis an Oscar nomination wherein she outlines how corporate greed has left athletes, especially Black athletes, on the sideline and she doesn’t intend to let that happen with her son. It’s a doozy of a performance.
There’s also an impassioned, last minute speech from Damon who outlines the greatness Jordan is going to bestow on the world. The actor brings the inspirational juice in these closing moments, making his character so winning and amicable, all you can do is cheer. And though Affleck might lean a bit too heavily into the nostalgia of the era, with flashing images of “Where’s The Beef?” commercials and Ronald Reagan snippets, his performance as Phil Knight is endearing and complements his behind-the-scenes talents. Finally, screenwriter Alex Convery makes the economics of Nike’s position very approachable and does something that’s incredibly ironic: he makes the multi-billion dollar corporation the underdog. Not an easy layup, but you miss all the shots you don’t take.
AIR opens in theaters, Wednesday April 5th.