‘Air’ review: Ben Affleck shoots and scores directing the behind the scenes story of Nike courting basketball legend Michael Jordan | SXSW
From the moment I saw him as a kid, just like every other kid and person in the world, I wanted to be Michael Jordan. He was more than just a man dribbling a basketball, he was a god. The way the ball would perfectly release as he made a jump shot, how he played smothering defense, and created magical moments in some of the highest pressure situations that made you believe you could do anything you wanted to do because you wanted to be just ‘like Mike.’ By the time I could truly remember him as a player, he was already at the peak of his greatness, finishing off his second three-peat (winning three NBA championships in a row), and cementing his legacy as the greatest basketball player of all time (which he still is). This dominance is displayed in a montage towards the end of Ben Affleck’s fifth directorial feature film, Air, the crazy story behind how Nike signed Michael Jordan to the greatest shoe deal of all time.
Long before all of the championships, the MVP awards, and becoming the most popular celebrity on the planet, Michael Jordan was a junior shooting guard coming out of the University of North Carolina, entering the NBA draft without any expectations from the outside world that he would become what he has become in the history books.
Enter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who sees what others don’t see, someone who is not only going to revolutionize the game of basketball but change the world as we know it for professional athletes. As Nike’s basketball expert, Vaccaro is hired to evaluate college talent who are about to go pro into the NBA, and use this knowledge so that Nike could target these athletes to sign shoe deals with the company. Though a very likable guy, Sonny is in a bit of a cold streak at Nike, with the company sitting in third place amongst the major shoe brands in the basketball market, behind Adidas and Converse.
The mood for Nike and the film are low at this point, as Nike’s basketball division is on the chopping block, as well as Sonny’s job if they don’t land some good players from this upcoming selection of draft picks. On a daily basis, Howard White (Chris Tucker), Sonny’s colleague and advisor for Nike, reminds him that as a former player, no basketball player on earth wants to sign with them because they aren’t cool, and Nike was known for being a running shoe company. Their rundown office in the middle of Portland personifies where they are at in 1984, as a company barely stuck in the past, looking like a rundown newsroom from the 1960s that is in much need of a facelift.
Furthermore, Sonny is a gambler, a man who can’t settle for a small win, but wants to push his chips into the middle of the table whenever he can, even if it means he could lose everything. So in a pitch meeting with Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Nike’s VP of Marketing, Sonny comes up with the idea of chasing Michael Jordan, the projected number three overall pick in the NBA Draft, with all of their spending budget instead of going after two or three guys, because his belief at the time is that Jordan is just a big enough of a name to draw in the consumers to Nike’s shoes. But as Rob, and Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), CEO and Founder of Nike, explain to him, Jordan doesn’t want to sign with their company, and there is no way they would give their budget to just one guy. So Sonny goes back to the tape, looking at all the upcoming draft picks, and notices something that will change their lives. From this moment on, the film turns into a high speed race against the clock, with brisk editing to move along this deal of a lifetime, leaving you on the edge of your seat with every interaction Sonny has from this moment on.
In Jordan’s highlight reel that scouts used to draft him into the NBA, lies the infamous clutch shot he hit to win the 1982 NCAA National Championship, the first for legendary coach Dean Smith, one of the greatest basketball minds ever. On that team were future NBA greats including future number pick and Los Angeles Laker legend James Worthy, who was considered to be the leader and star of that team. Yet, as Sonny and the audience watching Air discover, Worthy is the decoy, and the play was designed for this freshman shooting guard to hit this critical shot, and he shoots it with ice water running through his veins. It’s the birth of a legend, and Sonny knows that his assumption was correct, that Jordan is going to someone that Nike has to do business with, otherwise it will be the biggest regret of their entire careers. With the semi-blessing of Knight, and the confidence of his colleagues, Sonny sets out on the path of trying to do the impossible and sign Jordan to a shoe deal with Nike. Within this, the movie’s tone opens up, and with the help of every rock anthem from the 1980s used in the soundtrack, we follow along for Sonny’s amazing ride to get this historic deal done.
His first stop is to reach out to Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina), who is brutally honest with Sonny that Nike has a zero percent chance of even pitching to Michael Jordan, let alone signing him to a deal. Damon and Messina’s tennis match over the phone, alongside the various interactions in the film, highlight the balance of insider knowledge, human connectivity, raw emotion, and determination found in Alex Convery’s marvelous screenplay. In doing this, we forget that some of the biggest movie stars in the world are in this movie, and instead invest in this underdog story, as Sonny decides to bypass Falk and the advice of everyone at Nike, and go straight to the source themselves, the Jordan family.
In this riskiest move of his career, Sonny goes to North Carolina, to see what it would take for the Jordans to come to Portland and meet with Nike on a potential deal. He knows that there is no way he is going to meet Michael because he has to get who is really in charge of the family and her son’s future, his mother Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis). Michael is portrayed by Damian Young but has no lines and we never see his face, in a deliberate, risky yet rewarding choice by Affleck to showcase the people who helped make him the mythical figure he is today. Deloris never allows Sonny to meet her son until she knows he can be trusted. When he gets to meet Michael’s father James R. Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon), to really get down to business, he goes to the backyard and sits down with Deloris, and talks about what he thinks Michael will be, and how the other shoe companies will value her son as opposed to Nike. As he explains, the other companies will sign him, and make him just another player in their commercials, but he will never stand out, never be more than just a rookie shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls. Nike wants to build their whole brand around Michael, making him the first athlete in sports history to have their own shoe, making him stand out amongst everyone.
We know that Sonny is correct, as we know the historic career that follows this deal, yet Affleck never allows us to think about that in the moment. Instead, we are just sitting there, listening to someone who is passionate and risking everything he’s worked on his entire career in order to sit at this picnic table and talk to Deloris about her son’s future. And to her credit, she admires this straightforward, honest approach from him, even though she knows that her son doesn’t want anything to do with Nike. She is about helping Michael make the best decisions for his future. This is about just becoming the best basketball player in the world, but the best man a mother could want their child to be. With this scene, as well as a heartwarming, triumphant phone call sequence towards the end of the film, Damon and Davis showcase phenomenal performances, thus making the central core of Air about their belief in Michael, and making the film so special.
Alongside Damon and Davis, Bateman and Tucker give scene-stealing, confident work that brilliantly showcases these consistently reliable character actors. Throw in Marlon Wayans in a one scene turn, in a hilarious yet vital role as one of Jordan’s coaches who points Sonny in the right direction, and Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, Nike’s wacky creative director who designs the original shoe and name for the Air Jordans, and you have one of the best ensembles of the year so far. But beyond this cast, and while he is included in it and is great in the film, one of the biggest highlights of the film is Ben Affleck’s direction. The smooth transitions, the correct decisions of when to use needle drops (in particular opening the film with Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” alongside a montage of what were the highlights of the year 1984 to start the film), and allowing the camera to sit and let his actors do the heavy lifting is highly commendable, showing that after being away from the director chair for a little while, he’s come back with what is his best direction achievement so far in his celebrated career. His sincerity as a storyteller also for Nike’s story, the Jordan family, and the legacy this deal did not just for the people involved but for all athletes going forward busts through every decision he’s made here, making Air a biopic that stands above others we have seen before it.
Air is ultimately a story about the hope and trust we can put in complete strangers and having all of it pay off if you believe in something, or someone, with all of your heart. It’s stories like this that make us believe that we can have our faith rewarded, have our luck turn around, and know that our instincts in people as a whole can be rewarded. Having stories like these make you want to dream big, with the hope that you could be ‘like Mike’ someday, or rather build your own legacy and destiny as he did and have someone like Nike, like his family, like eventually the world, stand beside him and root for him to change everything that has come before. With this, Air proves itself to be a thunderous slam dunk and an absolute winner.
This review is from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release Air exclusively in theaters beginning April 5, 2023.