If you’re a fan of the 1980s, the opening montage in AIR (2023), with its 80s songs and pop culture clips including movies, celebrities, politicians, athletes, and even TV commercials— Where’s the beef? –— is worth the price of admission alone.
It’s a fun way to get things started in this story of how Nike went from chasing Adidas and Converse in the sneaker market to achieving number one status by developing a basketball shoe line exclusively for Michael Jordan, before he had even played one game in the NBA. It was a gutsy move that no one had done before, but it paid off, as Jordan did indeed become arguably the best basketball player of all time, and because of this deal, his career lifted Nike to new levels.
Everything about AIR is fun and amiable. There is no question that this is one very entertaining movie. But the bigger question is, why should anyone care?
For example, upon leaving the theater, I overheard a conversation between two moviegoers, where one was complaining to the other that he didn’t like the movie because this was a movie about Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan really isn’t in this movie at all. That’s a legitimate concern. Of course, the answer is that AIR really isn’t about Michael Jordan. It’s about Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike talent scout who came up with the plan to build a shoe line around just the one athlete, Jordan, and who convinced Nike to agree to his controversial plan. So, at the end of the day, AIR is not a story about the greatest basketball player of all time, but a story about a shoe deal that made some folks in the sneaker business an awful lot of money. Not exactly a rags to riches story.
AIR opens with Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) lamenting that the basketball department doesn’t have a big enough budget to compete with Adidas and Converse, but Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) tells him he’s lucky he has any budget at all because the basketball division continues to underperform. He tells Sonny the board wants to dismantle the basketball division entirely. Frustrated that they’re about to sign the usual three lackluster NBA players to contracts, Sonny struggles to come up with a different plan. While watching a video of Michael Jordan’s NCAA championship game winning shot, he sees something he hadn’t seen before, and with a new way of looking at the game’s final seconds, decides that Jordan has what it takes to be a championship caliber player.
Sonny comes up with the idea of using their entire budget on Jordan alone. That will enable them to be competitive with Adidas and Converse. Plus, unlike Adidas and Converse, Nike will be able to say to Jordan that they will be the only company to design an entire shoe line for him and him alone, in effect already telling Jordan that they see him as the future of the NBA, that they’re not placing him alongside Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They’re placing him above Johnson and Bird. It’s a controversial idea, especially since Jordan was already on record as saying he did not like Nike and was going to sign with Adidas.
But Sonny decided to gamble, and once he convinced Knight to go along with the plan, it became a bet that could make or break the company, and as history showed, it was a bet that paid off.
So, really, what this story is about is a bunch of middle-aged white guys trying to save their jobs by signing a basketball player to an exclusive shoe contract even before he has even played one game in the NBA. Which, honestly, isn’t the most inspirational story going. Sorry.
Now, this is not me knocking AIR or finding fault with it, because truthfully, I enjoyed AIR quite a bit. And why shouldn’t I? It has a lot of things going for it.
It’s directed by Ben Affleck, for starters, whose body of work I really like. I like the way Affleck directs movies. He knows how to tell a story. I’ve enjoyed nearly all his previous directorial efforts, films like ARGO (2012), THE TOWN (2010), GONE BABY GONE (2007), and even LIVE BY NIGHT (2016) which wasn’t as critically acclaimed, I thought was a very good movie. And Affleck is back doing his thing here with AIR. While I don’t find this to be the most inspirational story, it’s nonetheless masterfully told by Affleck.
And the screenplay by Alex Convery is a crowd-pleaser. The dialogue is sharp, snappy, and funny. The movie is filled with many laugh-out loud moments. I saw this in a crowded theater, several weeks after its initial release, which is saying something for its popularity, and there was plenty of laughter in all the right places, and people seemed to genuinely like this one. I certainly did.
Matt Damon is likable as Sonny Vaccaro. He plays Vaccaro as a guy who thinks outside the box and goes the extra mile to get the job done, attributes that make him a likable character. The last time I saw Damon in a major role was in FORD V. FERRARI (2019), in which he played a somewhat similar role to this one, as in FORD V. FERRARI Damon was a race car designer trying to design a car to defeat the much-heralded Ferrari cars which were dominating the racing industry at the time. With its thrilling race car scenes, I enjoyed FORD V. FERRARI slightly more than AIR, but thematically, their stories and Damon’s roles in them are similar.
Jason Bateman plays department head Rob Strasser, Sonny’s immediate boss, and Bateman and Damon enjoy some notable scenes together, one in particular where Rob tells Sonny just what he stands to lose if Sonny’s gambit fails, and pretty much tells Sonny he wishes he hadn’t put the company in this position.
Chris Tucker has a field day as Howard White, the one person of color on the team whose smooth-talking skills usually helps them with their basketball clients. It was fun to see Tucker on the big screen again. It had been a while.
Viola Davis delivers a very understated and rather subdued performance as Deloris Jordan, Michael Jordan’s mother who pretty much made all the business decisions for him. The fact that Sonny impressed her with his honesty about what Nike would do specifically for her son and why, because he believed Michael was going to become bigger than the NBA itself, was a major reason why Michael Jordan even agreed to meet with Nike in the first place.
Chris Messina also impresses as Michael Jordan’s agent David Falk, a cutthroat shark of a man who is all about making lots of money. The fiery conversation between him and Sonny where he lambastes Sonny for visiting the Jordan home, in effect circumventing him in the negotiation process, is a highlight of the movie.
Matthew Maher is terrific in a small role as Peter Moore, the sneaker designer who came up with the design for Jordan’s shoe, and who also came up with the name “Air Jordan.”
And Ben Affleck effortlessly plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, who divides his time between berating Sonny for his poor performance and giving him and all his employees philosophical and self-help advice. Knight also isn’t deaf to Sonny’s entreaties that the company needed to return to its roots, words that remained with Knight and ultimately led to his buying into Sonny’s decision. Affleck is a terrific actor who is starting to become underrated because of his success.
The best scene in the movie is the sequence where the Jordan family arrives at Nike for the big boardroom pitch by Sonny and his team. You can feel the tension in the room when it seems as if they are losing their pitch, as their efforts continually appear to fall flat, which leads to Sonny making an eleventh-hour inspirational speech.
It’s a terrific moment in the movie, but one that reiterates that the story told in AIR is limited. After all, what is at stake here if the deal goes south? A bunch of men don’t make a lot of money, and some might lose their jobs. Michael Jordan signs with Adidas and most likely still goes on to become the best player in NBA history. Not exactly a pivotal moment in history.
So, is this a strike against the movie? Yes! This story didn’t interest me at all. However, the way Ben Affleck told this story, and the way the actors performed in it, made it a damned fine entertaining flick! I liked AIR. I just didn’t think its story was all that important.
The best part of AIR is the work behind the camera by Ben Affleck. He knows how to tell a story. Clint Eastwood once said he made movies that his dad would like. And I got that. Eastwoods’ films were often “guy” films, but more importantly, they were films which told stories that worked. Eastwood as a director has always known how to tell stories. Ben Affleck shares this gift, and like Eastwood, has a real flare for telling stories from behind the camera.
The story AIR has to tell isn’t all that remarkable, but it’s a very good movie, because its director knows how tell it.
I give it three stars.
Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line
Three and a half stars- Excellent
Three stars – Very Good
Two and a half stars – Good
Two Stars – Fair
One and a half stars – Pretty Weak
One star- Poor
Zero stars – Awful