Film review: Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ reinvents the sports genre detailing Air Jordan’s rise to fame
(From left to right) Matthew Maher, Matt Damon and Jason Bateman play Peter Moore, Sonny Vaccaro and Rob Strasser in “Air.” The film directed by Ben Affleck premiered April 5. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)
Directed by Ben Affleck
By Francis Moon
April 6, 2023 9:27 p.m.
Ben Affleck’s directorial entrance into the sports world is a nostalgic slam dunk.
Released in theaters Wednesday, “Air” invites viewers into the story of how Nike courted eventual basketball superstar Michael Jordan against the odds in the largest athlete endorsement deal in history at the time. The partnership produced the culture-shifting Air Jordan line that has become one of the most recognizable and popular athletic brands in the world. Affleck knocks it out of the park as both director and co-star, as audiences are transported back to the 1980s in a compelling and inspirational underdog success story.
Although Affleck makes the risky decision to not have Jordan himself as a character, it pays off with the spotlight instead solely on the energetic and ambitious Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who is tasked with turning around Nike’s reputation in the basketball sphere. Damon’s versatility is put on display as he adds to the old-school ambiance of the film while making it hard not to root for his character’s rebellious self-confidence.
Vaccaro admirably puts his career on the line to lobby with Nike founder Phil Knight (Affleck) to gamble on 21-year-old Jordan at a time when Adidas and Converse were the big names in the industry. Affleck nails his portrayal of Knight with a perfect blend of the businessman’s laid-back yet arrogant and competitive character.
More than 25 years following Affleck and Damon’s breakthrough roles in “Good Will Hunting,” the pair has once again shown why they are among the most respected in the industry with one of their greatest collaborations yet. Their on-screen chemistry supports a masterfully quippy and well-paced script written by Alex Convery, which never feels like it is dragging, balancing the high tension and drama with chances for the plot to slow down and build itself to the inevitable partnership between Nike and Jordan.
The banter between Vaccaro and Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) brings a necessary yet natural comic relief into his pursuit, as Vaccaro goes behind Falk’s back to make a personal visit to Jordan’s parents in North Carolina, played by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon. Davis delivers a convincing performance as Deloris Jordan – the down-to-earth yet sharp-witted mother of Michael who believes her son is destined to change the world and will not allow him to be undervalued,which helps change the status quo of sports business forever.
The sense of familial value is also made more significant by Davis’ performance, evoking likability as a stern but agreeable mother who truly wants what is best for her family. The parallels between her and Vaccaro’s stubborn confidence in Michael Jordan’s potential to change the marketing world forever creates a heartwarming storyline given all the basketball star indeed went on to achieve.
Audiences are then given a more thorough introduction to the rest of Vaccaro’s small team, with Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker each bringing individualistic gusto to their respective supporting roles as Vice President of Marketing Rob Strasser and the eventual VP of the Jordan Brand Howard White. The film’s star-studded cast elevates essentially every character, collectively heightening the entertainment factor in what was generally an understandably predictable storyline.
Though at times the film may come on the verge of being overly advertorial for Nike or resemblant of a cliché sports story, it doesn’t take away from the flow and intrigue of the plot. As a unique perspective into the beginning of a staple in American culture, it immediately ranks among the top releases of the year thus far.
With the versatility of Affleck on both sides of the camera on full display, “Air” is much more than just that as an inspirational story centered around the power of ambition and familial drive.