The smartest thing director Ben Affleck does in a film about signing Michael Jordan to Nike is leaving the legendary basketball player mostly out of it. Air would only get so far in telling this story of corporate creatives attempting to achieve the impossible were His Airness to have a prominent presence. Instead, the focus is spread among an ensemble cast of very reliable performers to deliver a crackling drama that understands how to properly convey a message while serving as crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, a sports marketing executive for Nike, which is a fancy way of saying he’s a shoe salesman. Set in the mid-80s, while battling a low budget and unimpressive options as far as how to successfully advance Nike’s basketball shoe division, Sonny decides it would be best to set his sights on signing rookie Michael Jordan. The hook would be designing a shoe entirely around the young player. This brings great concern to all, including Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), fellow executives Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker), and Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina). The real challenge, however, is convincing Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), that Nike would be the best play.
Putting aside the usual understanding that not everything in a biographical film needs to be treated as an exact recounting of events that took place (some still seem to need that reminder), there’s something refreshing about how straightforward a film Air is. The stakes are seemingly not that high, even without considering how much a viewer may already know about the success Jordan and Nike have had together. Plus, much like other sports films not focused on the actual sport (see Moneyball or High Flying Bird), this is a film that, at least on the outside, wants to show how a successful company was able to become even more successful.
To make all of this work, Air relies entirely on its cast’s on-screen charisma, as it has little flash in store for the viewer. When comparing this film to another feature where Matt Damon must talk his way through difficult situations, Ford v Ferrari, at least that had killer car racing scenes to go with it. However, a film about the creation of a shoe has little to go on outside of how compelling this cast can make various conversations set in a few locations really be.
To wit, Damon is great here. As a middle-aged, somewhat overweight man who could be considered an intelligent gambler, the welcoming ease Damon brings to roles is significantly amplified here. You want Sonny to succeed, and it’s not because he has some tragic backstory; the guy just has the sort of quality you want to trust. Meanwhile, Bateman, fresh off the uber-serious Netflix crime drama Ozark, is delivering some career-best work as an equally mild-mannered guy showing just enough concern that pushes between supporting a risky idea and detailing the impact Sonny’s proposition could have on his life.
Leaning more into the comedic sides of things, Affleck’s Phil Knight is strong enough for the viewer to understand that a performance can only do so much to capture a real-life personality fueled by eccentricity and power moves. Messina is pretty great as legendary sports agent David Falk, who is allowed several shouting scenes primed for future clip show highlights. And what a joy it is to see Chris Tucker back on screen and making plenty of use of his time. Even in a more respectful role, there’s fun to be had with his interactions.
Of course, along with Damon, the other key performance is Davis, who only has a few scenes in this film, but they are vital to its success. In particular, the relationship Davis’ Deloris has with Sonny means so much to the story. They are not adversaries, but there is a climb to reach common ground. Both clearly have the sort of mutual respect that comes with knowing enough about how the world works for people in their positions and the potential for young Michael Jordan.
An early conversation stemming from Sonny’s bullheaded choice to go out and meet Jordan’s parents is met with the right sort of levelheadedness needed to know a deal with Nike has potential, in addition to reasons for worry. A climactic conversation shows two actors that feel they are on the same page, only for the realities to settle in, leading to a condensed but effective understanding of how the NBA shifted. Through all of this, there is no need for grandstanding, as both actors, and the rest of the cast, do plenty with the lived-in nature of their performances.
Really, the biggest this film dares to go is its spotlight moment. A major speech Sonny must give if Nike has any chance to truly impress the Jordan family manages to cut right into what it means to be a star athlete, let alone one of the best, most important, and most scrutinized players to ever play the game. While Air may not always have the rat-a-tat dialogue that allows scripts from, say, Aaron Sorkin to shine, writer Alex Convery does plenty with the knowledge of how things went down in reality and what needs to be done as far as making for engaging cinema.
On top of all of this, Affleck’s direction is cleverer than some may think. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has the chance to tell the story about how icons were made, and being set in the 80s, while not above a few obvious soundtrack cues, one can also see how rooted many of the choices are in highlighting the commercialized products of their time. This is a film featuring a concerned mother trying to do the best for her son (let alone help set a precedent for marketing young black athletes without being exploitative) that is also a dissection of instantly recognizable images. It’s not a wonder that setting this film mainly in offices and boardrooms makes so much sense.
The crucial thing, of course, is that Air is able to make good on being a winning drama, and that’s what it is. The film is well-acted, well-constructed storytelling that is far more than just a risky play being pulled off. Confidence abounds in this feature, and it has transferred well into something outside of flashier cinematic fare that audiences can appreciate were they to take a shot. As it stands, plenty has been done here to hold a strong position in the realm of sports-related films. It’s a swish.