Synopsis: Sonny Vaccaro, a shoe salesman at Nike, works to sign rookie Michael Jordan to a deal to wear their shoes.
Stars: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Julius Tennon, Matthew Maher, Viola Davis
Director: Ben Affleck
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As someone that watched all ten episodes of the exhaustive (but excellent) Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance, I approached Air wondering if the world truly needed another movie to tell us how great (and wealthy) an athlete Michael Jordan is. Even those unfamiliar with the documentary should have some base understanding of Jordan’s phenomenal talent. With his hands in multiple businesses and media, he’s more of a household name than some global political leaders. Hearing about the upcoming release of Air, I was scratching my head as to what could be so very special about it to attract such A-level talent for what seemed to be a rehash of a small chapter of a longer novel.
The script for Air was quite a hot commodity in 2021, showing up on the famous Hollywood Black List (the annual tally of the most popular screenplays not yet produced). While it didn’t languish there as long as some have, Alex Convery had to have been thrilled to see it get pounced on by Amazon Studios. If director Ben Affleck stuck close to the original script, and with the fast turnaround for casting/filming I have every reason to believe he has, you could see why it held appeal as a slick, showy approach to the history of the creation of a landmark partnership that changed the face of the retail market, and the way corporations were challenged to compensate their athletic collaborators.
In 1984, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, Gone Girl) was considering possibly laying off his entire basketball shoe division. The running shoe company couldn’t compete with popular brands like Adidas or Converse without a signed major athlete. Sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, Downsizing) was striking out in scouting high school players and unhappy with the limitations being put on him by his boss. As the season draws near, the options look grim except for one name none of them (especially Jason Bateman’s character, executive Rob Strasser) think they can get: Michael Jordan.
Jordan (through his representation) had stated publicly that he wasn’t interested in Nike, so it appeared the game was already lost. Sonny wasn’t deterred, though, seeing something in the player and his family that sparked him to make a series of bold moves that put his team and company in a precarious position, all in the hope of making a deal. Bypassing Jordan’s cantankerous, foul-mouthed agent (Chris Messina, She Dies Tomorrow) and appealing directly to the family’s decision-maker, Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis, The Woman King), Sonny had limited time to work with designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher, Live by Night) and resources from Knight to take a shot that will save them all.
Is it too early to talk about Best Actor hopefuls for 2024? I know, the thought weirds me out, too, but Damon’s doing something damn special in Air. It’s the daddyiest of all dad films, but take those scenes away, and you have Damon getting passionate about little things that, in turn, make us care about the outcome we all know is inevitable. A rah-rah speech Damon delivers near the end to Jordan is so confident and inspiring that I thought I could play basketball for the Bulls after. Also…the boldest move ever would be to recognize Messina for his foam-mouthed agent from hell. Talk about an unforgettable supporting performance that resonates throughout the rest of the film!
Affleck (or the script) makes the interesting move never to show Jordan’s face during the film, opting for archival footage in intervals to flash forward to the superstar athlete the young man with his back to the camera will become. Instead, we deal primarily with Deloris Jordan (it’s said that Michael Jordan’s only request to Affleck was that Davis plays his mother) with her husband James (Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon) sitting close by watching her work. Allowing this aspect of Jordan’s deal with Nike to be fleshed out was fascinating, and while this public knowledge wasn’t a big reveal, Davis and Damon play these final scenes with a hint of suspense that keeps us creeping to the edge of our seats.
That’s what shocked me about the Air experience in general: how much of the film I felt like I was holding my breath as to what would happen next. When I already knew what would happen next. That’s the sign of a filmmaker (Affleck) and screenwriter (Convery) with a confident grip on the audience. Playing with an almost documentary-like feel, Air flies high with skilled performances (and ample ’80s needle drops) and demonstrates again that Affleck is a director never to be counted out.