Air (United States, 2023)

April 04, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Air Poster

Professional sports are a mixture of athletic achievements and multibillion-dollar business elements. When it comes to sports-based movies, the vast majority focus on the former, often paying lip-service (if that) to the latter. Air joins the likes of Moneyball and Draft Day among the outliers. Based on the events that resulted in Nike’s 1984 coup of signing future basketball great Michael Jordan to a record contract, Ben Affleck’s film reminds viewers that the boardroom game can be as tense, unpredictable, and exhilarating as the one on the court.

Air transpires during the short period in 1984 when Nike was a long-shot dark horse for Jordan’s endorsement of the “Air Jordan” basketball shoe. The campaign to get him to sign on the dotted line was spearheaded by Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a straight-shooter known for out-of-the-box thinking and an unwillingness to take “no” for an answer. He immediately identifies Jordan (selected with the #3 pick by the Chicago Bulls) as the one future rookie who can change Nike’s fortunes (trailing both Converse and Adidas in market share, the company’s basketball shoe division is on life support) and sets out to get him to sign. The odds are stacked against him as fellow Nike employees Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) point out at every opportunity. Jordan has shown a strong preference for Adidas but when Sonny bypasses Jordan’s foul-mouthed agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), in favor of a sit down with Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), the landscape shifts. After getting permission from Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to put together an insanely lucrative offer, Sonny gets Nike a seat at the table, but a tight score at halftime doesn’t portend where things will be at the end.

It would be a stretch to call Air “riveting,” considering how well-established the Nike/Jordan partnership is in modern branding. We know from the outset that Sonny’s offbeat campaign is going to succeed so the film’s tension is minimal. Affleck, a veteran director with good instincts, recognizes this and doesn’t opt for fake suspense. Instead, he feeds into the viewer’s fascination with pulling back the curtain and seeing all the steps that went into getting the deal together. By all accounts, this is more true-to-life than many “based on real story” movies – in large part because most of the participants are (a) alive and (b) were willing to contribute to Air’s veracity. As the most important participant (albeit one with minimal screen time), Jordan had numerous conversations with Affleck (with his only condition for supporting the movie being that Viola Davis played his mother).

Dialogue is one of the film’s high points. Passages scintillate. Four in particular stand out: a scene in which Sonny confronts Phil about the value of risk-taking, a phone call when David Falk dresses down Sonny with a series of profane insults, a poignant moment in which Rob stresses the real reason why he continues to work at Nike, and the all-important tete-a-tete between Sonny and Deloris in which he lays out Nike’s case. Matt Damon is a participant in all of those sequences and never misses a beat. Over the years, Damon has shown his versatility (despite never winning an acting Oscar); playing an out-of-shape, middle-aged guy is quite a change-of-pace for a man who was one of Hollywood’s most feted action heroes not all that long ago. Damon is surrounded by an expert supporting cast, with Viola Davis and Chris Messina standing slightly above the rest of the pack.

Air is populated by “in the moment” characters. When it comes to Sonny, pretty much all that we know about him is what we see on screen. We are presented with a minimal backstory and few details about his personal life. The same is true of pretty much everyone else in the film not named Jordan. What do we know about Rob? That he’s a divorced workaholic who sees his daughter for a few hours on Sundays. What about Phil? He has become risk-averse now that he has a board of directors to answer to. Yet, because the movie is plot-oriented rather than character-focused, this approach works. We don’t need to know more about these people. In fact, it could be argued that providing more information about their personal lives would dilute the film and make it more conventional.

Affleck arguably overdoes emphasizing the 1984 setting by force-feeding viewers with a constant stream of early-‘80s hits (makes for a great soundtrack) and using era-appropriate props (a clunky car-phone, for example), clothing, and hairstyles. However, this comes from someone who lived through (and clearly remembers) the 1980s. Perhaps younger viewers might appreciate the kitschy elements that Affleck throws up on the screen. And I did enjoy revisiting the year’s Top 40 hits.

Air feels less like an Oscar contender (hence the April release) than something designed to provide a solid two hours of nostalgic entertainment. It features strong acting and a well-written screenplay and the tone is kept on the light side. There are serious aspects but Affleck never delves too deeply into them. After a short theatrical release window, it will be headed to Prime Video, which seems like a good match for a movie like this one. It doesn’t need to be seen in a theater but it is worth seeing in some capacity or venue.

Air (United States, 2023)

Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Chris Tucker, Matthew Maher
Home Release Date: 2023-09-12
Screenplay: Alex Convery
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-09-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1