Movie Review: ‘Air’

Plot: In 1984, Nike’s basketball shoe division is a disaster. A third and distant banana behind Adidas and Converse, sales are abysmal. In fact, things have become so bad that Co-Founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Justin Bateman) are considering shutting down the entire division. Enter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) Nike’s basketball talent scout. Vaccaro sees Michael Jordan as a generational player and formulates the brilliant idea to design a shoe around just him. Bucking the established patterns set out by agents, shoe company rivals, and the internal brass at Nike, Vaccaro makes the bold decision to approach Michael Jordan’s parents in person. Michael may be the goal, but it’s Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), Michael’s mother, who possesses a savvy business mind, and the one Vaccaro needs to impress. What follows is a scintillating underdog story about betting on yourself and the peaks and valleys of having a visionary idea.

Review: Air connected with me in a big way if for no other reason than I came of age during Michael Jordan’s rise to fame and glory. Fourteen-year-old Corrye was OBSESSED with the NBA, the Chicago Bulls, and of course Michael Jordan. Posters, VHS tapes, a Chicago Bulls Starter jacket (remember those kids?) that I wore far longer than I should have, as well as (and I write this slightly embarrassed) the Michael Jordan cologne. That’s right folks, he had a cologne!

Now does that mean you have to be an NBA fan to derive pleasure from Air? Absolutely not. You don’t have to be a Michael Jordan fan, a basketball fan, or Hell even a fan of sports to appreciate, nay, love this movie. At its core this is a movie about bucking trends, being a revolutionary, and betting on yourself. It’s about seeing greatness and the potential for more when everyone else thinks you should be committed or fired. These are themes that transcend any specific subject matter.

With the hindsight of history, we tend to think of Michael Jordan’s rise to fame, wealth, and superstardom as inevitable, as certain as a slam dunk from his Airness himself. The same can be said for Nike. Yet in 1984 more than a few basketball pundits called Michael Jordan overrated and believed Sam Bowie was the better player. Meanwhile, Nike’s biggest claim to fame was having Bruce Jenner as their running shoe spokesman and hoping that their basketball division could sign guys like Mel Turpin, Terence Stansbury, and Earl Jones.  

Enter Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro, Nike’s basketball talent scout. He’s a desperate man who seems always one step ahead of getting fired and trying to constantly justify his job to CEO Phil Knight and Marketing VP Rob Strasser. Then inspiration strikes—build an entire shoe line, and commit their entire budget, around one player—Michael Jordan. It’s hard to fathom that Matt Damon, who was once the indie darling and an ass-kicking spy, has transitioned into roles that can only be described as “America’s Dad.” And yet here we are.

Damon’s performance as Vaccaro is so effortless and natural it barely feels like a performance at all. He’s cavalier and confident to the point that he’s even willing to confront Phil Knight when he believes Phil and Nike have strayed from the pillars that helped build the company. Yet Vaccaro also has a warmth and vulnerability that makes it easy to root for him. When he’s in the car on his way to the Jordans making that call to Rob about his whereabouts, you can’t help but be filled with anticipation. How will he be received? Will he succeed? Amazing to even consider these questions knowing full well the answers. This culminates in an impassioned plea from Sonny to Michael Jordan that’s honest, heartfelt, earnest, and inspiring, even if it does go on slightly too long.

The scenes between Affleck and Damon are dynamic and effective. They are funny and poignant, and the duo plays off each other in a pickleball-esque fashion that hasn’t been seen since Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck excels as Phil Knight and somehow manages to walk the tightrope between confident and in charge to unsure and doubtful. You get the sense that Phil possesses a level of imposter syndrome and his actions and decisions demand constant validation. This manifests in the inevitable boardroom meeting with Jordan and his family. Phil sets it up like he’s taking his time out of his busy day because Michael is so important, but his actions are so awkward in the moment, that you can’t help but laugh and feel sympathy for Phil. Combine that with a constant tracksuit, sunglasses, and a purple sports car and Affleck’s Knight makes for a compelling and amusing character—even if Affleck’s wig doesn’t always work.

Air’s supporting cast elevates Affleck’s film to another level. Chris Tucker’s Howard White is funny and engaging. His banter with Damon had me giggling more often than not, but he also serves as a moral barometer. White is someone very cognizant and devoted to the safety and prosperity of young black athletes which adds a nuanced aspect to the character. Jason Bateman is once again his charismatic and droll self. The way he delivers lines is superb. But Bateman’s Rob also serves to remind Sonny it isn’t just about him and that Sonny’s wildcard actions will have real-life consequences for the department. These people have homes and families and it’s underscored by a phenomenal scene where Rob talks about his recent divorce and his young daughter. Chris Messina almost damn near stole the show as David Falk, Michael Jordan’s high-strung, excitable, and shark-like agent. There were a few phone conversations between him and Vaccaro that had me rolling. Hell, even character actor Matthew Maher slays as Peter Moore, the designer of the first pair of Air Jordans and the Jumpman logo. It’s amusing to have him wax philosophical about the history of shoes yet intriguing to see his passion. And Viola Davis? Well of course this queen slays once again as Deloris Jordan. She’s savvy, empathetic, and innovative. Deloris knows the greatness of her son and even has the foresight to request something (a percentage of every shoe sold) that’s never been asked before. The fact that Sonny sees the same thing she does drives that relationship.

As great as the performances are they pale in comparison to the flawless direction of Ben Affleck. It’s been six years since Live By Night and it’s beautiful to see what he can accomplish when he’s fully invested. How the Hell did he make a movie that consists mostly of boardroom meetings and in-depth one-on-one conversations between movers and shakers, and make it this dramatic? The final boardroom scene alone carries the tension of a high-octane thriller. It’s astonishing that I had the same edge-of-my-seat feeling with Air as I did with Seven. Doesn’t hurt that Affleck has a three-time Oscar winner and frequent collaborator Robert Richardson behind the camera. Ditto editor William Goldenberg who effortlessly cuts in real-life basketball highlights. The way that he edits Sonny’s final impassioned plea to Michael Jordan hits so hard because of the editing. Also, every 1980s needle drop is sublime. Much has been made of Affleck’s decision to not have an actor play Jordan in this movie, but it absolutely works. Mind you there is an actor who plays Michael Jordan, but you never see his face and his dialogue consists mostly of “hello” and “goodbye.” This adds to the mystery and mystique of Jordan which is kind of the point.

Air isn’t a film that manages to mildly entertain at the buzzer. It is a tomahawk-slam-dunk-from-the-foul-line banger that’s bound to end up in my top ten at the end of the year and one of the best sports films in decades.

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Air: 9/10