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The story of Nike’s game-changing brand deal with basketball superstar Michael Jordan is brought to the screen with Air, the fifth film as director for Ben Affleck.
The plot takes us back to the ‘80s and tells of how Nike executive Sonny Vaccarro (played by Matt Damon) took a massive chance on crafting a never-before-made deal for then-rookie athlete Michael Jordan. It was quite the gamble at the time. Not only would this offer to Jordan cost Nike a lot of money (the company’s basketball division wasn’t doing all that well at this stage), but it was far from a sure thing, with shoe giants such as Adidas and Converse also chasing the rising star with their own deals. Determined and with an eye on what could be, Vaccarro decided to go all in on this risky plan, which included having to convince his colleagues, such as Nike co-founder Phil Knight (Affleck). Vaccarro figured out that there was one person, in particular, that would have major say on whether or not this basketballer signed: Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan, played by a great-as-always Viola Davis.
This is a really well-crafted picture from Affleck and first-time screenwriter Alex Convery. It’s a comfy crowd-pleaser – a film that, almost expertly, travels on the fine-tuned trajectory of the underdog story. Of course, you can argue about whether or not a company like Nike, even at this stage, needed a praise-filled story in the first place. I was surprised that the film bothered to include a moment where a character brings up certain questionable labour practices; kudos for doing so, but… you know. But that’s the magic of cinema: draw up understandable characters that audiences can root for, place them on a satisfying, easy-to-understand journey, and you can win the crowd. This is, basically, a business deal, but the key is to make it more that; Air is a story about people with ambition, willing to take chances to succeed. Relatable.
Like I said: understandable characters. Air keeps a tight focus on just a handful of individuals in this story, and while they are simply drawn, they’re believable. We’re given just enough work life vs. personal elements to make them convincing. Vaccarro, for example, may have a slight gambling problem, which may play a hand in his all-in approach with this work venture. He’s also at a point where he needs a win in his career, as Phil Knight makes perfectly clear, so character motivation is set. It’s this type of measured approach to Convery’s screenplay that drives the story. There’s no information overload: not too many characters, logical motivation, and a simplified layout of the of the shoe/marketing business. Done. All you needs are strong performances and direction to bring it to life. Well, swoosh and swoosh on both counts.
Damon is great as Vaccarro, again nailing that type of ‘everyman you can rally behind’ role that he’s aced before. It’s a pitch-perfect, naturalistic performance from Damon, whose charisma serves the character very well. After all, major moves being made by Vaccarro are clearly going over the heads of his superiors, and yet a level of respect among the men remains. Damon gives the character that much-needed likeability, to understand why his bosses are putting up with his antics.
Damon is backed up by a very strong supporting cast indeed. Affleck is very good as Phil Knight, and his scenes with real-life buddy Damon provide some of the film’s best back-and-forths. I also found Jason Bateman to be a standout among the supporting cast, nicely underplaying his part as marketing exec Rob Strasser. He brings in a surprising amount of emotion to his scenes, helping fuel the desire to see these guys, and well, Nike, succeed. Some nice smaller parts for Chris Tucker, Matthew Maher, and Marlon Wayans too. And Chris Messina is a lot of fun as Jordan’s foul-mouthed agent David Falk, who chews it up in mostly telephone scenes.
Unsurprisingly, Viola Davis owns every moment she’s in. A handful of sequences, but the star’s presence is major here. As Deloris Jordan, Davis is utterly convincing as a woman who has no problem holding steadfast whilst managing the big businesses and the suits within them circling her son, and keeping her son’s – and her family’s – best interests as the priority.
A bit of a factoid: that’s Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon, playing Jordan’s father, James Jordan.
Which brings me to the screen role that isn’t: that of Michael Jordan himself. The legendary athlete is, of course, a major component of this story, but he isn’t a major on-screen character. Affleck has said that having someone playing Jordan on screen would have, more or less, distracted the audience. That giving such an icon figure someone else’s face may have taken the viewer away from the Nike story in focus. And I get it. Unfortunately, though, I found the film’s avoidance of Jordan simply distracting. I may be in the minority here, but seeing the framing and obvious blocking, structured to keep Jordan just out of reach, was simply too obvious. And during a major moment towards the end, I felt like shouting, “Show him already! He’s right there.” I’ll admit, having the Jordan character on the sidelines kind of works throughout the film, but during a pivotal crescendo scene it just reaches the point of awkward. A strong scene nevertheless, thanks to some solid writing and Damon in meaty speech mode, but… you know, can you please turn that camera around so we can get that Jordan reaction?
Another factoid: Jordan himself requested that Viola Davis play his mother.
I should also touch on the film’s on-point period detail, including a banging ‘80s soundtrack that should be a winner for fans of the era’s music. The soundtrack has bangers from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, ZZ Top, and George Clinton, among many others.
Ultimately, Air is a very solid film. A narrative structure we’ve seen play out many times before, sure, but the script, the performances, and Affleck’s confident direction culminate in a satisfying, feel-good picture.