Michael Jordan is widely considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time. That statement alone immediately conjures pitches for many a film about his life and career. Jordan has even been one of the few players to cross over to the front of the camera, playing a fictional version of himself in the 1996 family movie Space Jam (a critical flop, but iconic cinema for 90s kids). A movie centering around his ground-breaking deal with Nike at the start of his professional basketball career could easily have placed the then-20-year-old third round draft pick at the heart of the narrative, or at the very least, positioned him to take a more active role as he wrestled with the decision on what endorsement to take: the popular Converse, his preferred Adidas, or Nike, who didn’t really have a player in the game at the time. But the most pleasant surprise of Air—director Ben Affleck’s film of first-time screenwriter Alex Convery’s telling of how the deal came about—is that for all its adherence to many sports movie cliches, it’s incredibly wise regarding who and what it chooses to focus on. Jordan may not have been a household name yet when Air opens in 1984, but his star was certainly on the rise. Air doesn’t center around him, nor does it need to. Rather, it is about the underdogs off the court and behind the scenes who propped him up and believed in him.
Matt Damon stars in Air as Sonny Vaccaro, a sports marketing executive for Nike and clearly the only one who is genuinely passionate about basketball, dividing his time outside of the office between attending high school games and watching and rewatching tapes of specific players, analyzing their game. In meetings, he challenges his colleagues to put more thought into why they like a certain player, as opposed to spouting a lot of vocabulary that sounds smart but means nothing (to the chagrin of the company’s director of marketing, Rob Strasser, played by an appropriately exasperated Jason Bateman). Desperate for a good idea, his job on the line, Sonny comes up with a plan that everyone around him can only shake their heads at and attempt to dissuade him: that instead of dividing their allotted budget between multiple players, they target it all toward Jordan, designing a shoe specifically around him rather than having Jordan promote an existing design. It’s an angle that no one in the business has tackled before, and Sonny pursues it with dogged enthusiasm and unerring determination—even going so far as to circumvent Jordan’s agent (Chris Messina, who oozes scene-stealing levels of frustration at every turn) and go straight to the person primarily responsible for Jordan’s affairs: his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis).
Air is an underdog story through and through, right down to it centering around the people who will never be household names. This isn’t the first sports movie to largely take place in offices rather than on the court or field (think Jerry Maguire or Moneyball), and it isn’t as emotionally satisfying as those either, but it’s proof that the business side is every bit as engrossing as the game itself. When Sonny and Rob watch designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher in peak endearing nerd mode) unveil his initial design for the Air Jordan during a marathon weekend work session, it’s so exhilarating that we really feel like they have this in the bag, that we’re witnessing history in the making. And when their actual presentation to the Jordans nearly collapses under a barrage of lame jokes and clumsy attempts to impress them, it’s akin to watching a car crash in real time— only for Sonny to recover with a rousing improvised speech, the coach’s rallying cry transplanted from the locker room to the board room.
Air’s screenplay hits all the right notes, punctuated by obvious but stellar 80s needle drops, and Affleck’s character-focused direction serves it well. And the performances across the board, arguably superior to the script they are working with, make the film even more riveting to watch. Affleck has a small role in the film as Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight, and he delightfully plays into Knight’s personality quirks, from his reliance on questionable meditation practices to his habit of propping his bare feet up on his desk. Affleck and Damon’s longtime real-life friendship, which dates to before their Oscar-winning collaboration on 1997’s Good Will Hunting made them household names, aids their chemistry on screen; there’s a weight to their conversations that implies a long previous history, both personal and professional (it should be noted that Air is also the first film to come out of Affleck and Damon’s new production company, Artists Equity). This is the first solid lead role that Damon has had in a minute, and he brings an everyman quality to it that sells his performance, even when his earnestness perhaps could have been tampered. Davis is always transfixing; some might say she is underutilized here, but her steady presence is just what this movie needs: unwavering in her belief in her son, pleasant but firm in what she wants. Jordan is in the film, but we never actually see his face, the camera always hovering somewhere behind him. That’s not to say that his presence still doesn’t permeate the entire film. It’s sort of a daring move, but one that works, diverting the focus from him to Sonny and Deloris.
Air’s face-value entertainment factor does, however, mask its uneven messaging, which tries to be anti-capitalist in its dumping on Nike’s rivals and depiction of Jordan’s ground-breaking deal, the first in which a player was granted a portion of the shoe’s sales revenue. But it can’t help but turn right back around into being pro-capitalist (and perhaps also a very expensive Nike promo?); this may be an underdog story, but it’s still a corporate one, in which closing the deal, no matter how often the characters expound on how special Jordan is, is the end game. Air doesn’t even touch the issue of race and the importance of centering such a large campaign around a Black man (although Affleck likely isn’t the right person to tell that story), nor does its story venture far enough past the closing of the deal to comment on how Air Jordan’s became both a status symbol, and the target of crimes for those who wanted to get a piece. Those are all important things to consider before becoming too effusive in our praise, but purely as a piece of entertainment, inspiring without feeling too corny, paced well between humor and drama, never becoming too bogged down by jargon that audiences who aren’t already familiar with this story and these players won’t understand, Air is—and I say this as someone whose sports knowledge amounts to “I know the name of my city’s baseball team”—the most fun sports movie that’s come around in a while.
Air is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.