REVIEW: “Air” (2023)

Ben Affleck hops back into the director’s chair and re-teams with his longtime best friend Matt Damon to share the origin story of Nike’s lucrative Air Jordan basketball shoeline. The appropriately titled “Air” marks the fifth time Affleck has stepped behind the camera and the first time since 2016’s “Live By Night”. While that movie wasn’t exactly well received, it (as with each of his directorial efforts) showed off Affleck’s keen instincts as a filmmaker.

Originally slated to premiere on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, Amazon Studios made an exciting move and gave “Air” and exclusive theatrical release. Not a bad decision considering how much people love sports movies. But “Air” isn’t your run-of-the-mill sports movie. It’s more of a corporate story than anything else, but one inseparable from the game of basketball and the from the man many people believe is the greatest player of all-time – Michael Jordan.

“Air” is a biographical sports drama but with a sharp sense of humor. There are some big laughs scattered throughout its rather meaty two-hour runtime. But there’s also heart, some unexpected charm, and a crowd-pleasing feel-good component that’s sure to win people over. There’s some great dialogue (written by Alex Convery) and some terrific on-screen chemistry that’s energized by top-notch performances from an all-around superb cast. And it’s all brought together and ushered along by Affleck’s keen direction.

But while its story is easy to get into and it has no trouble holding your attention, it is weirdly contained. What I mean is, “Air” never really goes beyond the corporate aspect of the story. The signing of Michael Jordan by Nike had a major impact on sports marketing, players, and the culture moving forward. But outside of a brief speech, one phone call, and some post-movie script, there is scarcely any context and these broader implications are mostly unexplored. It’s a narrative choice and there’s nothing wrong with a film having such a laser focus. But so much ripe material is left on the vine.

Another effect (or consequence, depending on how you look at it) of the story’s self-restriction involves the characters. They’re actually really good at fleshing out their corporate world and revealing the corporate processes that led to Nike securing Michael Jordan. As mentioned, there’s some great office chemistry as key players laugh, argue, and wrangle. But unless you already know about the real-life people behind these characters, you won’t know much about them after seeing the film. They’re kept in such a tight box that we don’t get to know any of them outside of their jobs.

That being said, Affleck does a terrific job of sucking us into the fast-moving wheel-and-deal story of a shoe company in need of a big score. It’s 1984 and Nike is far from being the powerhouse it is today. In fact, they were trailing both Converse and Adidas in total market share. Nike was strong when it came to running shoes, but they were lagging behind in basketball. They desperately needed a big name to wear their shoes.

Coming off an annual loss, the pressure was on to energize the struggling basketball division. Enter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike’s basketball talent scout. Sonny is a little reckless and he’s a gambler by nature, but he knows basketball. He and the marketing team have $250,000 to spend recruiting three young players from this year’s crop of NBA rookies. Names like Barkley and Stockton are on the board. But Sonny locks onto one name – the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft, Michael Jordan. The problem is, Jordan already has his heart set on signing with Adidas.

But Sonny believes in Jordan and crafts a go-for-broke plan. He recommends using their entire $250,000 on one player – an unproven kid from Wilmington, North Carolina who has yet to play a second in the NBA. First he’ll have to convince CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) to go along. Phil was once a risk-taker who went from selling sneakers out of the back of his Plymouth Valiant to co-founding the Oregon-based Nike, Inc. But now he’s beholden to a board of directors after the company went public. Getting him onboard won’t be easy.

Another hurdle is Jordan’s agent David Falk (an overcooked portrayal played by Chris Messina). Falk doesn’t think Nike is a serious player and he already has strong verbal offers from Nike’s competitors. So Sonny takes a gamble. He bypasses Michael’s agent and goes straight to his parents, Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (played by Davis’ real-life husband Julius Tennon), making his case for building a shoeline around their superstar-to-be son.

It’s no surprise that the movie reshapes some of the real-life events and leaves out several details of the true story. But we still get the gist of it, and Affleck makes sure we have fun in the process. The performances are a big reason why. They’re terrific from top to bottom (I haven’t even talked about Jason Bateman as VP of Marketing Rob Strasser and Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White – both are great). They all fit nicely with the questionable hair, Members Only jackets, and 80s needle drops. And while the movie certainly could’ve been more, what we get is still pretty enjoyable. “Air” is now showing in theaters ahead of its Prime Video release.


10 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Air” (2023)

  1. I’m going to see this when it arrives on Prime as I love stories like this. Plus, I grew up a fan of MJ though I was more of a Hawks fan back then and still a fan of the Atlanta Hawks.

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