Recently on my podcast, The Hot Mic, I relayed a story about how, around Thanksgiving, Ben Affleck had just put the finishing touches on his new feature, Air, and had said he felt so good about it, and the response it as receiving from test audiences, that he was pushing Amazon Studios to release the film in December as a late-breaking awards contender. Amazon apparently felt that the movie had strong commercial potential and didn’t want it to get lost in a holiday marketplace dominated by Avatar: The Way of Water. So the decision was made to hold AIr until the spring — after all, as we now know, that timing didn’t seem to hurt Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Oscar chances.
Having now seen Air, I can see Affleck’s point. His film is fantastic — thoroughly engaging and surprisingly emotional. It’s a total crowd-pleaser, and a return to form for Affleck as a director, following the messy crime drama Live by Night.
Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, a frumpy Nike exec scouting young talent for the company’s fledgling basketball division, which has a rather tiny budget of $250,000 to sign NBA players to sneaker deals. Back in the 80s, the Oregon-based company was known first and foremost for its running shoes, as basketball stars such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had shoe deals with Converse.
Michael Jordan, the incoming NBA rookie who had just been the third pick in the draft, was believed to be signing with Adidas, which was the dominant brand in Black culture at the time, and had a lot more money, but Vaccaro saw something in Jordan — a fearless will to succeed — that made him risk his entire career. Ignoring the advice of his boss, Phil Knight (Affleck), circumventing the Bulls player’s hard-nosed agent (Chris Messina), and travels to Wilmington, North Carolina to speak directly with Jordan’s parents, James and Deloris, played by real-life husband and wife Julius Tennon and EGOT Viola Davis.
Now, we know going into this film that Vaccaro ultimately succeeds in signing Jordan, who along with Nike, has reaped billions in profits from sales of his Air Jordan sneaker line. Jordan is all but synonymous with Nike, and to this day, no other athlete has been able to replicate the strength of his personal brand, as his silhouette is recognizable across the world. But as with Titanic, it doesn’t matter that we already know how this story ends. The joy lies in watching the ways Vaccaro convinces Jordan to sign with Nike, and what lies behind the birth of that iconic partnership.
Air also boasts a surprising amount of heart, though it obviously helps to be familiar with Jordan’s story. When Affleck introduces a climactic montage about Jordan and you see the news footage of his father’s murder, you feel that loss and recognize what it took for him to come back from that tragedy and compete for another world championship.
The script by Alex Convery features rich dialogue that flows like water and sounds even better coming from actors who can handle delivering then—in all its staccato rhythms. Indeed, The entire cast here is fantastic and do justice to the tropes they’re playing as well as their real-life counterparts. Damon’s performance is his best since The Martian, which is saying a lot considering since that one, he also hit home runs in Ford v Ferrari and Stillwater. Pencil him in for an Oscar nomination next year.
Affleck’s increasingly zen Phil Knight, Messina’s turn as his opposite, an aggressive agent David Falk (a performance that’s sure to have fans within Hollywood agencies), and Davis’ forceful scene-stealer Deloris all shine. As do Jason Bateman’s anxious marketing exec Rob Strasser, Matthew Maher’s oddball shoe designer, and Chris Tucker’s comforting Nike exec.
Affleck makes the deliberate choice not to show Jordan’s face in this film, and I think it’s the right one, even though it’s a bit distracting at first. However, I understand the director’s belief that seeing a young actor who clearly isn’t Jordan might be even more distracting. And since we all already know Michael — what he looks like and sounds like — why worry about it when our own imaginations can do the work for the filmmaker? After all, the story itself is fascinating enough on its own that Jordan’s physical presence doesn’t matter, for he looms large regardless.
I’ll also defend Affleck’s decision because the movie isn’t about Michael Jordan, it’s about what he represents — the American Dream. Jordan was the ultimate underdog, someone who was cut from his high school basketball team, but through hard work and sheer force of will, he became the greatest basketball player of all time. Perhaps that’s how Sonny sees himself — as an underdog who outworks everyone else, which is why he feels he’s made the discovery of a lifetime in Jordan.
I can see why some are lobbing the “TV movie” description at Air like some kind of four-letter word — it’s not the most visually exciting movie and the story is straightforward, but we should be so lucky as to get TV movies like this one. This is like Moneyball for a new generation but likely, more rewatchable.
Air may not be a crime movie a la Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but it is right in Affleck’s sweet spot as a director — a mid-budget movie for adults that should be a solid single (if not a double) at the box office for Amazon, where millions more will catch it on Prime Video. See it in theaters with a crowd if you can, though the film is such a slam dunk that it should play well at home, too.
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