Director Ben Affleck’s New Movie ‘Air’ Is Surprisingly Good


Some movies surprise us. Air, a new film by Ben Affleck, does that in a marvelous way. Knowing the movie was about the sneaker brand Air Jordan, I assumed Michael Jordan would be at the center. Instead, we never really see his face. It is his mother Deloris (Viola Davis) who is at the center of the movie. Her brilliant performance helps create the heart that allows an intelligent look at the creation of a product that eventually dominated the world.

The movie follows Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who is sort of the basketball guru for Nike as he battles to bring his company’s products up to the top level, dominated by Adidas and Converse. They rule the field by getting the top athletes to wear their shoes (paying them, of course) so that fans, particularly young ones, want to wear similar shoes.

Sonny goes to Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) with a new concept in marketing. He believes that the company should gamble its entire basketball budget on one player: Michael Jordan.

Of course, we know that Jordan is one of the greatest (in my personal opinion the greatest) basketball players of all time. But the movie takes place in 1984, the year he was drafted (third, not first) by the Chicago Bulls. He had been brilliant in that years’ Olympics and was a new star. Vaccaro is certain that they will be able to compete at the highest levels if Nike focuses on creating their sneakers about him. Thus: Air Jordans.

At the time, Nike was going nowhere on the basketball court. No top player wanted anything to do with a brand known for running shoes. The all-stars wore Adidas or Converse, leaving Nike’s basketball division stunted. But Sonny believes that the “third-rate” shoe brand has a chance to break through if instead of their usual method of selecting three players to endorse the brand, they focus on one potential star.

The film avoids dealing with Jordan the player or even Jordan the man. Instead, we see the inner working of Nike, a sort of friendly nod to entrepreneurial capitalism. Knight comes across as a sort of generally amiable bear, occasionally critical to allow some drama.

The real drama, however, comes in Nike’s dealings with Jordan’s parents. Deloris, his mother, is a real force when it comes to getting the best for her boy. She is balanced by James R. Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon) as the more genial father. But Deloris pushes Nike further than they really want to go. For her, if the sneakers are going to be identified with her son, she feels he should get a percentage of the action. In other words, instead of being a paid endorser, he would become a partner. Or to be more precise, the family would become the partner.

The film, in essence, uses symbolism, to demonstrate the change in the 1980s in the balance of power within sports. Instead of basketball owning players, they came to really owning the sport. And it started with Jordan. We all know that wearing Air Jordans will not make us better players but, well, it’s still nice to dream.

The cast is really good. As mentioned above, we never really see Jordan. There is a body double for a scene, but we never see his face. But he is still the key person in the film. Damon is good as Sonny. Affleck, wearing a terrible wig to match Knight’s own hair, is OK, although the acting job is not all that tough. Chris Tucker as a cynical Nike executive and Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent do well. I liked Tennon a lot as a balance wheel for Davis. She is the center of the film with her incredibly strong performance. She never lets us forget that the movie is also about family love.

Director Affleck wisely keeps the pace up throughout the entire film. Davis provides the heart of the film, but it is Michael Jordan himself, without ever appearing, that is its soul. If you like essentially feel-good movies, you will like the film. If you remember and loved Jordan, this film will really get to you.