Basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro receives the improbable task of reviving Nike's dormant basketball shoe line against the stout competition of Addidas and Converse. With limited resources at their disposal, Sonny and Nike risk it all by pursuing college superstar Michael Jordan as their lone client in the sports biopic Air.
You do not have to be a basketball fan to recognize Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time (sorry, LeBron). Across an illustrious career personified by countless champions and his unwavering conviction, Jordan became a legendary symbol of excellence. His unparalleled stardom worldwide dominated the cultural zeitgeist as he helped catapult the NBA toward new pinnacles of popularity.
Rather than focusing on Jordan's well-known legacy, Air zeroes in on an overlooked stepping stone in his milestone journey - the development of his marquee Air Jordan shoe brand. I was undoubtedly excited as a major hoops fan for the latest project from actor/director Ben Affleck, but part of me was curious to see how the film could translate to a massive audience of non-NBA nerds.
Fortunately, Air's perceptive court vision seizes the grander significance from its slice of history. Affleck and his star-studded cast form a championship team in an enthralling and deceptively nuanced crowd-pleaser that will leave sports aficionados and newcomers cheering for more.
Air feels like a film crafted in a bygone era in all the best ways. There is no blockbuster spectacle or phony gimmicks that work desperately to attract audiences' attention. Instead, the film radiates poised self-confidence, trusting its material and the talent involved enough to carry the heavy lifting.
Credit to Affleck for assembling a glamorous all-star ensemble of actors. Matt Damon imbues his trademark swagger into Sonny Vaccaro, personifying the sports figure's uncompromising vision as he risks it all for greatness. Viola Davis remains a dramatic force of nature in the scene-stealing role as Deloris Jordan. Her commanding presence represents the critical maternal voice steering her son toward a prosperous future. Respected talents like Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina and Affleck himself also provided a dynamic comedic spark as talking heads working behind the scenes in Jordan's recruitment process. Watching a film that lets its actors play to their strengths is a joy. Everyone involved forms an infectious onscreen camaraderie that helps drive the narrative forward.
I can see how readers could construe Air as a stuffy piece of sports lore at first glance. However, that could not be further from the truth. Alex Convery's screenplay and a plethora of improvised moments discover the humor within the narrative's tale of corporate courtship. I've seen some denounce Air as a piece of corporate propaganda that only exists to commemorate Nike's rise to power. In reality, a significant source of its bitting barbs and amusing reflections poke fun at the cynical business entities blinded by profit margins over any grander creative vision. The sharp comedic streak combines brilliantly with the film's actual focus - showcasing a spirited celebration of the unheralded dreamers working behind the scenes to help create an indelible piece of cultural lore.
Affleck's thoughtful direction also elevates the impact of these voices. Affleck is one of the best examples of an actor transitioning to behind-the-camera work, as he boasts an innate understanding for what artful choices can enhance a narrative. With Air, Affleck plays into the larger-than-life mythos of Michael Jordan without straining the film with heavy-handed devices.
Jordan is rarely displayed onscreen, but his presence looms large over the narrative like an otherwordly figure. Affleck brilliantly captures the burden of responsibility resting on the shoulders of the Nike creative team by instilling a sense of epic grandiosity. Scenes of Sonny and Nike workers collaborating on the shoe line are played with magnitude akin to a King Arthur and his Knights of The Roundtable quest, while the infusion of classic 80s ballads rings as battle songs cheering on the character's ambitious pursuits. Affleck's ability to award these characters and their work with importance onscreen provides an enthralling entryway into what could be dull subject matter in lesser hands.
Additionally, framing Air as an underdog story is an intentional and profoundly reflexive choice. As the first outing for Damon and Affleck's new movie studio, Artist Equity, the two highlighted their vision for supporting actors and behind-the-scenes talents against a Hollywood marketplace that continues to squeeze profits (I could write a whole article about this dynamic alone, but in short, it's primarily due to the streaming model awarding less financial gains for the talents involved). They ensured a change of culture with their first production by compensating everyone involved, from the stars on the posters to behind-the-scenes production staff, with more significant paydays than average productions.
For this reason, Air resonated with me as the duo's thesis statement against the modern Hollywood system and other capitalist parties that minimize the worth of creative collaborators in favor of sheer efficiency. It is easy to connect Sony and his contemporaries to Damon and Affleck, with both parties venturing outside familiar norms to enact positive systematic changes in their industry (without spoiling, Air gradually shifts towards the conversation of financial equity for athletes). Whether you think there is value in that premise deriving from celebrities is worthy of debate, but I thought the concept still rang true with sincerity and impact.
Air soars to remarkable heights for a sports film. Affleck and company deliver moxie and intelligence in a rousing effort that stands firmly above typical crowd-pleasing tendencies.
Air is now playing in theaters.