AIR (2023) | REVIEW

Matt Damon and Viola Davis in AIR — PHOTO: Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by Ben Affleck — Screenplay by Alex Convery.

Ben Affleck’s AIR is a biographical drama about the origin of the highly successful original AIR Jordan basketball shoe, which was designed with Michael Jordan in mind when he had yet to actually play an NBA game. It follows Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon), a basketball talent scout for Nike, as he tries to convince first Nike and then Michael Jordan and his parents, including his mother Deloris (played by Viola Davis), to choose Nike, which was, at that time, not the massive company that it is today, as his brand of choice. There are, however, quite a few obstacles that Sonny must overcome. Jordan allegedly prefers Adidas, Nike likely cannot afford to compete with Adidas for his signature, Nike is considering axing their basketball division, and Sonny doesn’t have the best relationship with Jordan’s agent (played by Chris Messina).

AIR Jordan shoes are incredibly popular both with sneakerheads, basketball fans, and, well, people who appreciate great-looking shoes. To most people (including me, as well as the makers of this movie), Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. His name and stardom go beyond the basketball court. He is bigger than the sport. Ben Affleck’s AIR is built around this common knowledge and it relies upon that knowledge and its terrific cast’s notoriety to get people to watch it. Because, frankly, if this was about any other shoe, if this didn’t have Michael Jordan’s name even implicitly attached to it, and if this wasn’t an Affleck and Damon star vehicle, then this sports-movie-without-sports, Michael-Jordan-film-without-Jordan, and basketball-movie-without-any-basketball (Jordan and basketball pretty much only appear in this movie through archival footage) wouldn’t attract a lot of interest.

My point is that Affleck’s film, which I did enjoy, is mostly a nostalgia artifact and, to a certain extent, a piece of brand marketing that is more interested in the corporation at the center of the film than the actual product and the creation thereof. Matthew Maher plays Peter Moore who designed the now-iconic shoe, but his part is so small in the film, and the creation of the shoe is so briefly shown, that I was honestly a little bit baffled. This film does a commendable job of highlighting the genius of the person who worked day and night to get Jordan’s signature, but other than that this just feels like The Big Short of athletic apparel companies with the ‘underdog story’ baked into it, when, I think, most people expected it to be closer to something like Moneyball.

Those interested in the design of the shoe will probably be disappointed, those who are interested in the icon that stepped into the shoe will be the same. This isn’t to say that the film ultimately is poor — it isn’t, I enjoyed it — but I state this to say that it’s not as ambitious as you may expect. It has a narrower focus than I anticipated, as it is more focused on meetings and phone calls than design and basketball. Frankly, even though Viola Davis probably gives the most interesting performance in the film (she is quite good here and fully understands what this film needs of her), her role is smaller than it probably merited. It should also be said that it feels wrong for the film to not actually have Jordan as a character.

Though “played” by Damian Young, I think you only hear him speak once or twice, and you only see him from a distance or merely his back. It may be true that Jordan’s parents spoke for him like this film suggests, but it just feels wrong for this icon to be robbed of a felt presence and a real voice in a film that is essentially about a corporation’s attempt to profit off his tremendous talent. He feels absent. Were it not for the fact that Damon’s performance is infectiously passionate, as his character sees Jordan for his full potential, and the fact that Affleck is a good director who succeeds in making this relatively charming, then this could easily feel even ickier than it already does that it, to a certain extent, is about how the almost all white people at Nike tried desperately to cling to Michael Jordan like parasites as he brought them with him to stardom. This is exactly why Viola Davis’ character is so essential because, through Deloris, you understand how the Jordans revolutionized these deals, pressed the bidders to put their money where their mouths were, and got more out of it than anyone had previously. And I mean a lot more. It’s just a shame that all of it is communicated through intermediaries. I know Jordan is one of the most recognizable athletes of the last forty years, but he should’ve played a bigger part in this.

But if you are okay with this being about intermediaries and all the other caveats above, then there is a mostly solid and sturdy film about how someone — namely Sonny Vaccaro — saw the full potential of Jordan’s talent and how he risked his own livelihood on the small chance that he could convince a star who had already made up his mind about the company he worked for. Affleck has made something that is closer to being an underdog-ish version of The Big Short than Moneyball or even Jerry Maguire. The well-paced and relatively charming AIR is full of excessively nostalgic needle drops to keep things snazzy and engaging. Honestly, this is a film that I like more than my review probably makes it seem like. Yes, it is a very strong ‘dad movie’ with great monologues and sharp lines, but I still have massive concerns about the fact that someone of the utmost importance to this story doesn’t get to have a real presence in this film, and it is maybe a little bit too much of a “talking about doing things” kind of film. Still, though, the excellent cast (which also includes the star director) elevates the story (so much so that it will blot out the film’s questionable qualities to some), and Damon’s big myth-making speech lands triumphantly. Frankly, if you don’t think too much about what’s missing here (and how much of a piece of brand marketing this is), then you can have a good time with this one.

6.9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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