Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture, “Air,” brings together a remarkable cast to tell the captivating story of Nike’s basketball division’s pursuit of a young Michael Jordan. This ambitious move had the potential to revolutionize the realms of sports, shoes, and athletic marketing.
Initially, when news broke about “Air,” excitement surrounded the collaboration between Ben Affleck and his longtime friend Matt Damon, leading many to speculate that the film would focus on Nike’s origins or the legacy of the company’s co-founder, Phil Knight. Some even wondered if it would be a biopic about Michael Jordan himself. However, “Air” takes an unexpected direction by centering its narrative on a single custom-made sneaker—a shoe that would forever alter the course of footwear and sports marketing history.
While this film represents a departure in genre for Affleck, known for his earlier works such as “The Town,” “Argo,” and “Gone Baby Gone,” his adept touch and unwavering confidence shine through within minutes of the story’s unfolding. Bolstered by an exceptional ensemble cast, the film follows a familiar and well-trodden path, leading up to a climactic moment.
At the heart of “Air” is Matt Damon, flawlessly portraying Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball scout and sports executive responsible for accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of persuading rookie Michael Jordan to sign with Nike in 1984—an era dominated by Converse and Adidas. However, before this groundbreaking collaboration could come to fruition, numerous challenges needed to be overcome. Phil Knight (played by Affleck himself), Nike’s co-founder and former CEO, is initially appalled at the idea of investing the basketball division’s entire budget, and more, on an unproven player. Jordan’s protective mother, Deloris (portrayed by Viola Davis), and his fast-talking agent (a captivating performance by Chris Messina) also require convincing before Jordan himself enters the picture. Additionally, the film explores whether Nike’s eccentric designer, Peter Moore (played by Matthew Maher), has the capability to create the greatest shoe prototype ever—the first Air Jordan.
The narrative skillfully weaves together these sub-plots, peppered with rapid-fire dialogue, amiable banter, dry wit, and office humor, as they converge towards a will-he-or-won’t-he climax. Surprisingly, “Air” features minimal footage of basketball being played, aside from archival videos showcasing the real Michael Jordan in action. Instead, the film primarily unfolds within the claustrophobic confines of conference rooms, meeting halls, and office cubicles.
Given the well-documented folklore surrounding Air Jordans, there are few genuine surprises along the way. However, the exceptional cast of actors injects their performances with an extraordinary energy that secures their place in the highlight reels. Affleck excels in his portrayal of the showboating, Porsche-driving, barefoot-walking Knight, skillfully balancing arrogance with delightful control. As a director, he takes a backseat, allowing the supporting cast to shoulder the heavy lifting. Damon once again showcases his ability to make every character relatable, capturing the essence of Sonny Vaccaro. He delivers a robust performance, having gained weight for the role, deftly carrying the weight of the script on his broad, solid shoulders.
The most enjoyable and humorous moments of “Air” arise from the interactions between Sonny and Knight. It is impossible not to envision the real-life friendship between Damon and Affleck, as they undoubtedly had a blast working together on set. Supporting actors such as Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, and Chris Messina bring a potent and amusing deadpan quality to the film, but it is Viola Davis who shines brightest among them all.
Air is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video