Ben Affleck has become a reliable director who understands how to craft engaging films. Whether its fictional stories like The Town and Gone Baby Gone or films based on true events like Argo, Affleck gets the art of making entertaining movies with relatable characters pulling off some incredible accomplishments. With his latest, the stellar Air, Affleck takes a reflective look at Nike’s courting of Michael Jordan to their brand.
While laughable to think now, the film shows how Nike transformed from a bit player in the basketball shoe field into the industry leader. Maybe the most impressive aspect of Air is how Affleck and debuting screenwriter Alex Convery make this feel like an underdog story despite Nike being a publicly traded company years earlier.
Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, Thor: Love and Thunder) is searching for the next big thing. Nike’s basketball scout has to find the breakout talent that will bridge the sizable gap with the company’s basketball division and kings of the court Adidas and Converse.
The 1984 NBA draft class was one of the all-time best, but Nike’s execs including Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman, Ozark) believe they’ve got no shot at signing Jordan to a contract.
Nike wasn’t the sexy shoe and didn’t have Run-DMC rapping about the cool factor of their sneakers as Sonny’s pal and Nike exec Howard White (a terrific Chris Tucker) points out.
To make the impossible possible, Sonny has to sell the idea that Jordan can be a generational talent that Nike can’t afford to pass on to a number of important players namely Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, The Flash).
Assuming he gets Phil and Rob on board, Sonny has to convince Jordan’s agent, David Falk (a scene-stealing Chris Messina, Argo), to aid his efforts to get a meeting with the Jordans. With the encouragement of his good friend, George Raveling (Marlon Wayans in a charmingly reserved performance), Sonny decides to make the bold move of appealing to Jordan’s parents, Deloris and James (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon).
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Jordan reportedly didn’t seek to be heavily involved in the film but insisted that Davis played his mother. That’s a pretty strong flex to ensure one of the greatest actresses of her generation play his mother.
It was a great touch for Davis’ husband, Tennon, to play her husband on screen as well. And Tennon having a passable likeness to James Jordan didn’t hurt either.
Affleck cast Damian Delano Young to basically stand-in for Jordan as he’s never shown in full. At times it feels like Affleck is taking too many lengths to avoid showing Jordan on camera. Short of deepfake CGI, audiences would clearly know Young was not Jordan but keeping him in shadows or obscured is more distracting than having him in the background.
Charlese Antoinette Jones’ (Judas and the Black Messiah) costume design is impeccably done. Jones avoids the trap of many recent films set in the 80s and doesn’t exaggerate or mock the fashion. It’s simply showcased as a window to an earlier time period even with Knight’s curly perm. The set design from David Smith and Henry Somarriba is also tastefully arranged and established as a slice of life look inside the 80s decoration style.
There’s something incredibly cool about seeing Damon and Affleck reunite on the big screen. The 1998 Oscar-winning screenwriters for Good Will Hunting, made some rewrites to Convery’s script to further sell the drama of an American institution.
Of course, with this being based on actual events, there’s some liberties taken to make it more dramatic and impactful without it feeling too cheap.
The talent involved is incredible and all the key players deliver as expected. It’s early in 2023, but Damon and Davis seem like locks for nominations come award season. Damon plays the likable good guy role so easily, but he brings an earnestness to this role that resonates.
Davis is on that Meryl Streep level where she basically warrants a nomination for any role now. Still, this is one of her stronger performances as the reserved mother who doesn’t need to do be showy or overly dramatic.
Affleck’s direction might be overlooked just for how smoothly he delivers a story that hits all the right notes though that shouldn’t diminish his chances. And he could be a sneaky best supporting actor candidate as well. Matthew Maher (Captain Marvel) is also fun as Nike shoe designer Peter Moore.
Air has that work-hard and with a little luck something amazing will happen feel of so many classic feel-good films. It’s a crowd-pleaser that should connect with sports and business fans.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios