Friday Film Review | 'Air'
The new film “Air,” tells the story about how Nike courted basketball legend Michael Jordan to ink the Air Jordan sneaker endorsement deal before Jordan even played his first NBA game.
“Air” is the ninth film collaboration between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon since the Boston friends won a screenwriting Oscar in 1997 for “Good Will Hunting.” The release is the first from their new production company, Artists Equity, which they formed to give cast and crew a stake in film profits. “Air” is also the first time Affleck directed Damon. Originally pegged for just Amazon streaming, “Air” received such positive word of mouth after a surprise screening as the closing film at SXSW earlier this year that Amazon is now giving the film a broad theatrical release.
“Air” is set in 1984 when Michael Jordan was picked third by Chicago in the NBA Draft. Built upon its foundational success as a running shoe company, Nike was struggling to gain traction in the basketball sneaker market, getting outgunned by Adidas and Converse. The new stars all wanted the street cred of Adidas track suits or to walk in the footsteps of Converse’s top brand ambassadors - Larry Bird, Dr. J, and Magic Johnson. Nike’s founder Phil Knight, played colorfully by Affleck, turned to a guru of high school basketball, Sonny Vaccaro, to seed the future of Nike basketball. Sonny, played by Matt Damon, struggles to spend the limited budget that Nike allocates for endorsements by basketball players. So, Sonny comes up with a crazy proposal to spend all of their budget on a single player, Michael Jordan, and back the deal with an exclusive shoe line dedicated to the player’s image. Only one problem, Michael Jordan has already proclaimed he does not like Nike and will not even give them a meeting.
Nike had no involvement in the film and MJ’s sign off, fortunately for audiences and Ben Affleck, was conditioned upon Viola Davis starring as his mother. Sonny decides to pursue MJ though his mother and Davis’s powerful performance as his mom grounds the film which otherwise teeters between the melodramatic depiction of the all-consumed Sonny Vaccaro and a tongue and cheek rap on the sponsorship industry and its predicable cast of characters. Viola Davis and Matt Damon counter the sports sentimentality which slowly underwhelms for the first half of the film, with powerful scenes reflecting the importance of family and the greatness we’ve come to know of MJ. Chris Messina plays David Falk, Michael Jordan’s agent, with a scorched earth persona that makes Jeremy Piven’s explosive depiction of Ari Gold in “Entourage” look like a kittycat. Showing how sneaker mastermind Peter Moore created the beautiful black and red shoes, Matthew Maher, Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker round out a terrific supporting cast featuring the rest of the Nike team.
So, on my Black Diamond ski trail rating system, “Air” earns my highest BLACK DIAMOND ski trail rating. Granted, “Air” is a nostalgic puff piece which obviously over-simplifies the complex transactional history and other implications of swallowing the American Dream narrative behind this deal. However, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Viola Davis deliver compelling performances and an outstanding glimpse of the backstory behind a basketball legend’s biggest deal.
“Air” is playing in theaters and rated R for language, really bad language, and potty-mouth sport agent language.