In 1984, future National Basketball Association (NBA) superstar Michael Jordan signed a revolutionary shoe deal with Nike that helped save the company and would eventually cement Jordan’s legacy as the face of basketball. “Air” tells the story of how Nike scout Sonny Vaccaro, CEO Phil Knight and Marketing Vice President Rob Strasser convinced Jordan to sign with Nike and change the course of history.
The mythology of Jordan has been explored in many films and television, such as “The Last Dance” recounting his final championship run, “Michael Jordan’s Playground” which discussed how he was infamously cut from his high school basketball team and “Space Jam” fictitiously showing Jordan hoop with the Looney Tunes. “Air” is interesting in that it is not a documentary, but a film based on the true story of Vaccaro and Jordan.
“Air” stars Matt Damon as Vaccaro, Ben Affleck as Knight, Jason Bateman as Strasser and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother. Affleck, likewise, directed the film, marking his return to film direction after a seven-year hiatus. Interestingly, Jordan himself is barely shown, only either from behind or in archival footage of the real Jordan. It was a smart move by Affleck to do this because Jordan is such a famous figure that any attempt at a portrayal of him would be heavily scrutinized and have taken away from the core heart of the film.
The biggest compliment that one can give “Air” is that it feels like a movie that studios just do not make anymore. The death of the mid-budget drama film has certainly been felt in recent years, as most cinema releases are either indie films made on a shoestring budget or massive, expensive blockbuster films. “Air” is refreshingly neither of the two, but instead a well-made drama that proves films do not need to have action to keep an audience entertained.
What helps “Air” soar is the story being told in the film. For starters, the film is based on an incredibly interesting and important real-life event that immediately draws the viewers in. Even if one is not entirely familiar with Jordan’s relationship with Nike, they are almost certainly aware of the cultural influence of Jordan and the Air Jordan shoe line. Similarly, the themes at the center of the film are pure and drive the film forward at all points, never getting distracted or lost in meaningless side plots. “Air” is a film about hustle, knowing one’s value and the relationship between parent and child. A lesser film would add a generic romantic subplot for Vaccaro, but “Air” instead opts to spend its run time truly developing its characters and staying focused on its messages.
With the story comes interesting and real characters, led by Damon’s beautiful performance as Vaccaro. Damon has been delivering awesome performances his whole career, and “Air” ranks at the top of his resume with an everyman performance as Vaccaro that captures his humor and bravery, even when the odds are stacked against him. Affleck is also great as the eccentric Knight and brings the billionaire to life in a believable way. Bateman gives a human performance as Strasser, having one scene in particular where he gives a memorable speech to Vaccaro about his relationship with his daughter and how it ties to Nike. Davis might just have the best performance of the film as she oozes understated power in her limited scenes as Deloris Jordan. The way that she protects and looks out for her son dictates the film’s powerful emotional core.
Another important feature of “Air” is its ability to be a time capsule for the 1980s. The opening scene of the film is a montage of archive footage from the 1980s, including films, music and sports, letting the viewer know right off the bat that this is a film about that time period. Throughout the film, various 1980s hits play, including “Time After Time,” “Born in the USA” and the apt “Be Like Mike.” The music, along with the costumes, helps transport the audience back in time and make the film feel like a true period piece.
Perhaps the only criticism that can be levied against the film is that it often feels like a one-sided look at the story. The saying goes that the victors get to dictate history, and “Air” exemplifies this as Nike gets to make Adidas and Converse look like fools for letting Jordan slip through their fingers. Another controversial moment in the film occurs at the end when a title card claims Jordan is the “greatest basketball player of all time.” Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on the everlasting debate of who is the greatest basketball player, it seems too arbitrary to be a claim that the film makes so easily.
On the whole, “Air” is an example of cinematic storytelling done well, from its intriguing story to its potent themes and vivacious characters. It is unfortunate that more films like “Air” are not made these days and released in cinemas because it is truly an entertaining film that deserves to be seen in theaters.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars