Ben Affleck's latest supremely crowd-pleasing directorial effort chronicles Nike's 80s quest to sign Michael Jordan.
April 03, 2023
Bouncing across the screen with charm, energy and an 80s sheen, Air says one name often: Michael Jordan. This film spins an origin story so closely linked to the NBA all-timer that the true tale simply wouldn't and couldn't have happened without him; however, it isn't actually the six-time championship-winning former Chicago Bulls player's own. Instead, Ben Affleck turns director again for the first time since 2016's Live By Night to recount how Jordan also became an icon in the footwear game. Think shoes, and everyone knows the word that usually follows this flick's title. Think Air Jordans, and Nike also springs to mind. Those sneakers are still being made almost four decades after first hitting stories — in fact, the brand is now notching up $5 billion in annual revenue, $150 million of which is going to its namesake — so Air answers the question no one knew they had until now: how did it initially happen?
Sports endorsement deals mightn't sound like compelling cinema, but neither did scouting, signing and trading in the right baseball players before Moneyball demonstrated otherwise. Working with a script by screenwriting first-timer Alex Convery — who is also one of Air's co-producers — Affleck turns the quest to sign a then just-drafted Jordan by a struggling shoe company into infectiously entertaining viewing. The actor and filmmaker might be nearly as famous for Sad Affleck and Bored Affleck as he is for movies, but he knows how to please a crowd. Forget his facial expressions when he's unhappy talking about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or being at the 2023 Grammys with Jennifer Lopez; as Argo demonstrated back in 2012 to the tune of three Academy Awards including Best Picture, behind-the-lens Affleck is a feel-good wiz with lively and irresistible true tales.
Indeed, give the Good Will Hunting screenwriting Oscar-winner an IRL event filled with tension and twists, and populated by vivid characters, then get him to replay it smoothly and at a snappy pace (and with ample talk): that's now not just a one-off Affleck formula. He's been helming films since 2007's Gone Baby Gone. He's up to five now, and he's also starred in them all since 2010's The Town. Also featuring Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Viola Davis and Chris Tucker on-screen, Air is one of Affleck's own greats as a director. Even from just the trailer, it's easy to see that he's in Argo mode again — welcomely so, as the end product shows. Somehow, we're currently living through a golden time for genuinely engaging pictures about corporate manoeuvring that could've just been expensive ads in lesser hands; see also: recent streaming release Tetris, which also stacked the right blocks into place.
Air similarly heads back to the 80s, to 1984, when Jordan was a 21-year-old college standout newly in the NBA and facing a life-changing decision. Damian Young (Prom Night Flex) plays the basketball GOAT, but this is a movie about the making of a legend — so the pivotal character gets all the flick's admiration and praise while bounding into the boardroom wheeling and dealing. Crucially, Air doesn't block out Jordan. Rather, it pays tribute to his talent even without staging on-court scenes, and to the shrewd wrangling and negotiating that his no-nonsense mother Deloris (Davis, The Woman King) did on his behalf. The ultimate outcome is clearly well-known, because if there was no agreement, there'd be no Air Jordans and therefore no movie (and the Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike would still be best known for jogging shoes). But the slam dunk this endorsement proved for giving athletes their financial dues when their talents make bank for sponsoring companies is no minor matter, and nor is it treated as such.
Working for founder and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, Deep Water) four years after Nike went public, in-house basketball expert Sonny Vaccaro (Damon, The Last Duel) really just has one job: find the footwear outfit the right NBA name to tie their fortunes to, help them seem cool among the basketball crowd and get customers a-buying. His colleague Rob Strasser (Bateman, Ozark) wants three players, thinking that the company is already priced out of the market on top draft picks — and unalluring due to their paltry share of the market compared to Adidas and Converse. The stakes are high, albeit not Argo-level life-or-death high. The word is that Nike's basketball division will be scrapped if the next endorsement deal doesn't deliver. So, Sonny makes a bold suggestion. Instead of a trio of ballers, he's all-in on Jordan, certain that he's the future of the game and about to be its biggest-ever star. The latter's manager David Falk (Messina, Call Jane) won't entertain the prospect, though, which is what leads Sonny to courting Michael's parents Deloris and James (Julius Tennon, also The Woman King, as well as Davis' real-life husband).
Sonny is a gambler, detouring to Las Vegas when he's scoping out college up-and-comers. On Jordan, he bets big. And, although Affleck ticks all the boxes that helped Argo become the hit and award-winner it is, Air isn't afraid to take its own chances. There's zero risk in the movie's spot-on aesthetic, which cinematographer Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) roves over lovingly. (Commercials from the era are also spliced in). There's also no flukes in the period-appropriate soundtrack, which is as obvious as they come yet also still works. But Air is as much about what it means to leave a legacy and be remembered as it is about the ins and outs of teaming up Nike and Jordan — and crafting the kicks that became must-wear apparel (Hello Tomorrow!'s Matthew Maher plays designer Peter Moore) — a choice that might've been a long shot or even a miss if it didn't sail meaningfully but still breezily through the hoop.
Actually, don't forget Affleck's facial expressions after all — he's having a blast on-screen as the grape-coloured Porsche-driving Knight, especially in his scenes with Damon. It's been more than a quarter-century since Good Will Hunting, that script collaboration and them apples, plus more than three decades since they were both in School Ties before that, and they remain a dynamic duo to watch simply bicker and banter. Including Tucker (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk) as fellow Nike employee Howard White and Marlon Wayans (Respect) as George Raveling, a 1984 Olympics assistant coach when Jordan was first on the US team, Air's cast is a dream, but Davis unsurprisingly gives the swishest of performances. This is always a film about showing the money to the greatest to ever do it rather than just using him as a corporate asset, too, and in a movie that earns its audience's cheers, she's the face of that important battle.
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