Telling a story with an ending we’re already aware of and centred around a subject that could be considered mundane to many, Ben Affleck‘s strength as a director – and enthusiastic support player – is on full display in Air, an immensely humorous, consistently riveting and passionate drama about the basketball league’s greatest ever player and the shoe line that redefined sneaker culture.
Essentially a Cinderella story, Air doesn’t chart the rise of Michael Jordan (strategically placed throughout so his likeness is only alluded to), but the Nike-produced sneaker that would become synonymous with his branding; all set into motion by one Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, sublime), a Nike sales exec who knew that the limited funds Nike was willing to part with to court three players could be enough on its own to lure Jordan solo.
Affleck – here portraying Nike co-founder Phil Knight – pulls off something of a risky manoeuvre with his film. How do you make a movie based around such a formidable player as Michael Jordan and not feature him prominently? Air doesn’t quite fit the mould of the usual sports tale (although those with an affection for features such as Moneyball or Jerry Maguire will find a kinship here), with the Nike corporation and its executives fighting for Jordan’s signature acting as the narrative’s underdogs.
Vaccaro already being aware that Jordan wants no part of Nike sponsorship – Adidas and Converse have already sweetened their deals – adds an additional layer of intrigue to Alex Convery‘s script, and, in turn, it assists Damon in creating a wholly likeable embodiment as his Sonny is someone we instinctively root for – even when he’s partaking in all the actions he knows he shouldn’t as a professional. Actions like personally visiting Jordan’s parents (Julius Tennon and Viola Davis, both perfection, as James R. Jordan Sr and Deloris Jordan, respectively) and respectfully pleading his case to them, warning them of buzz words and empty promises that the other companies will come forward with in their bids to home Michael.
As much as Air is about business dealings, it has an immense amount of heart pulsing through its core. There’s a gentleness to how Tennon and Davis deliver their takes on Jordan’s parents, and Sonny himself so clearly wants what’s best for the (then) rookie by explaining his relationship with Nike would be more about him as a person and less of a statistic; Damon’s passion is palpable throughout, perhaps at its absolute best when bouncing off of Chris Messina‘s David Falk, an NBA agent who represented Jordan and has something of a love/hate relationship with Sonny throughout.
Whilst basketball (and Jordan) enthusiasts will obviously get more out of Air as a whole, and anyone who grew up in the 80’s or 90’s will look kindly on the film’s nostalgic mentality, Affleck has nonetheless crafted a universal tale that speaks to the masses outside of the sporting industry. There’s an excitement in the way that he tells a very straightforward story, avoiding any unnecessary set-pieces and letting the positivity of the narrative speak for itself. On paper, Air could have been a concept fraught with mishandling. In its execution, Affleck has created something rousing; a film that’s intelligent enough to know audiences expect certain moves from the genre playbooks we expect, so there’s a subversion against the rules and a grand win as its culmination.
Yes, it’s cliché to say this, but Air is a slam dunk!
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Air is screening in Australian theatres from April 5th, 2023.