It’s hard to imagine Nike being an underdog when nearly every major athlete across all sports competes wearing their signature Swoosh logo, but there was a time during the 80’s when they were seen as playing third fiddle to competitors Converse and Adidas. Michael Jordan changed that all. Not only did he help make Nike the behemoth they are today, but he also changed the entire athlete marketing and sponsorship business. Air is a smart and witty sports drama that hits all the right shots as it tells this tremendous story. It’s a story that easily lends itself to the big screen, giving Ben Affleck a wide open lane to an unguarded basket. Whether you’re a basketball fan, a sneakerhead, or something in-between, Air is a sure-fire slam dunk.
Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) works at Nike, the third largest athletic shoe company in the United States, in the marketing department whose job is to scout out the best athletes to sign to sponsorship deals. With most of the big name athletes signing with signing with competitors Converse and Adidas, Sonny finds himself banking his entire career on his feelings about a single rookie player who he believes will be a star; Michael Jordan. Sonny’s ambitious plans revolves around creating a shoe that embodies the player rather than the player simply wearing the brand. But before he can do any of that, he has to convince the higher ups, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), to take a chance on him and invest everything on a single player. The rest, as they say, is history.
Air is less about the destination and more about the journey itself. We all know how it ends. Everyone knows who Michael Jordan is, regardless if you follow basketball or not. Nike’s Air Jordans are some of the most highly sought after shoes around. Looking back, it’s an easy decision to see, but at the time Nike was in desperate need of a win and Michael Jordan was talented but he wasn’t a guarantee. In a way, Sonny has the same eyes as the audience. Like us, he can see what Michael Jordan can bring to Nike. The entire film revolves around him convincing everyone else of his own beliefs. People like Phil Night and director of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) believe he is crazy for wanting to invest all their marketing budget on a single player rather than spread it around three. And then creating an entire shoe around that player? It might seem like a no-brainer in today’s age, but in the 80’s it’s easy to see why Sonny was worried about not only losing his job, but putting his entire career on the line.
The only other person to see the same potential as Sonny is Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris, played brilliantly by Viola Davis. She is the heart and sole of Air. As they say in the film, every decision goes through her. Davis displays the confidence that she brings to every one of her performances. It is said that the casting of Davis as Deloris was one of the requirements Michael Jordan had before he would give the film his blessing, and it’s easy to see why. She’s calm and steadfast. She’s also responsible for making sure that Jordan got a cut of the money made from every sale of the shoes, something that was unheard of at the time. Deloris knows how talented her son is and will fight tooth and nail for him. And no one does a better job at portraying her than Viola Davis.
Michael Jordan is mostly absent from the film aside from a few oddly placed appearances where he is shown from behind or his face is obscured. I know the film is more about Nike itself than him, but it feels a little awkward at how far the film goes to try and hide him. I don’t know if it’s because Jordan didn’t want his likeness to be a part of the film or they just couldn’t find the right actor for the role or what, but it’s definitely noticeable. It doesn’t make the film better or worse; it just is.
The people who do make appearances are fantastic. I particularly love the scenes involving shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) who is credited with creating the original design and logo for the Air Jordan shoe. There’s a great scene between him, Sonny, and Rob where they’re discussing the design and the NBA’s rules and how Nike will foot the bill for any fine Jordan would receive for wearing shoes that would go against regulations. It’s a brilliant marketing tool and a wonderful little scene. Air is full of them. There is a hilarious conversation between Sonny and sports agent David Falk (Chris Messina) who represents the Jordan family. Falk naturally writes Nike off since Jordan is expected to sign with Adidas, but Sonny’s persistence eventually gets the better of him. The dialogue is sharp, witty and fun, just like the entirety of the film.
Air is a return to form for Ben Affleck. The story follows your standard “against the odds” sports drama formula, but it’s impossible to not get wrapped up in the hype. Basketball fans and shoe collectors are sure to have a great time learning more about the origin story of the Air Jordan, but so will anyone else. Like Michael Jordan, it’s a story that goes beyond a single sport or theme to become something larger than life. Even though the film itself is about taking chances, seeing Air is one of the safest bets you can make at the theater.
Air is a smart and witty sports drama that hits all the right shots as it tells this tremendous story. It’s a story that easily lends itself to the big screen, giving Ben Affleck a wide open lane to an unguarded basket. Whether you’re a basketball fan, a sneakerhead, or something in-between, Air is a sure-fire slam dunk.