Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the former’s next directorial effort Air. Based on the true story behind the Air Jordan shoe brand, Damon is Sonny Vaccaro, a top shoe salesman at Nike, which is headed by his friend Phil Knight (Affleck). Knight wants to compete with fellow corporations such as Adidas by sponsoring sports stars, something that Nike is behind in. Vaccaro makes a radical suggestion – that they should sponsor rookie basketball star Michael Jordan by building a shoe line based around him. Air tells the story of Vaccaro’s efforts to sign Jordan and his family to the deal.
The legacy of Michael Jordan is widely known, even to those outside of the basketball circuit. He’s one of if not the greatest athlete who’s ever lived. Yet his Nike shoes strangely have as big a legacy in some ways, with documentaries such as 2020’s One Man and His Shoes highlighting just how ridiculously popular this brand became. Air serves as a precursor to this titanic success, but, similar to movies like The Social Network, it uses the audience’s awareness of the outcome to its advantage. This isn’t a story about whether Nike’s shoe will be successful. It’s about how it became successful.
Air grippingly examines not just the race to secure Jordan, but it fundamentally understands what it was about both the man and the brand that was so appealing. Screenwriter Alex Convery has a particular knack for dialogue in this script, with eloquent monologues woven with character beats that would be worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Through passionate arguments made between characters, we get a full picture of how Jordan made basketball look like an art, and how Nike wished to channel that into their sponsorship of the man. Their means are staunchly capitalist, as is the way of western business dealing, but it nonetheless captures the sheer allure of Jordan and what his shoe brand meant for those who wanted a pair. That Jordan is kept off frame for the film, portrayed as a larger than life entity by comparison with the carefully cunning businessmen, only adds to this allure.
Yet it also does not forget that it is a story first. Affleck’s confident direction and Convery’s script create compelling characters out of Vaccaro and Knight are in as much of a competition as Jordan from a certain perspective. Vaccaro is a talented salesman who knows from gut instinct that Jordan has a spark of something that only comes once in a blue moon. His arc showcases a man shedding his ego in order to fully believe in something – and Damon portrays him with swagger and charm to boot. Affleck’s character, whose arc details finding his confidence again, is equally engrossing, with Affleck’s performance being his best since Gone Girl. The balancing act that both men display between comedy and drama is amiably enjoyable, aided by the undeniable chemistry these two have shared since the days of Good Will Hunting.
But, unsurprisingly, it is Viola Davis who steals the show. She serves as Jordan’s mother Dolores, who sees the raw talent of her son’s abilities before anyone else. With Jordan portrayed as a deity to appease, Dolores serves as a bridge between Nike and her son. Davis’ capturing of unconditional faith and grounded perception of how corporations play games is magnificent to watch. Davis’s effortless embodiment of character and delivering of dialogue is music to the ears.
There are a lot of characters, conundrums and consequences to juggle, but Affleck’s direction keeps everything sharp and focused with electric pacing. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is brilliantly executed, with its seemingly mundane settings of offices and showcasing of 80s pop culture contrasting and ultimately elevating the competitive intensity going on between the businessmen. Even though there’s a lot of nostalgia to be found here, it wisely serves as foreshadowing to how much this seeming normalcy is about to be changed forever. Through its craft and intelligent writing, this becomes a thematically captivating film that does not waste a minute of its runtime, doubly serving as an interesting biopic and a testament to perseverance.
Air is Affleck’s best directorial effort since Argo. Although its premise may not initially suggest anything riveting, it’s a tightly written and surprisingly adrenaline charged movie on legacy, belief and boldness. Terrifically acted, deceptively exciting and enamoured with its subject matter, Air demonstrates what goes into the creation of a legend – be it a man or a brand – while remaining thoroughly entertaining in craftsmanship. Anyone looking for a biopic this week need look no further.
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Alex Convery
Stars: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis
Runtime: 112 minutes