Movies

‘Air’ review: Shoe Me the Money 

This Matt Damon and Ben Affleck team-up is a crowd-pleasing Michael Jordan movie that doesn’t include Michael Jordan. 

A scene from the movie “Air.”
AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

"Air" is as solid a movie as you could ever want or expect about corporate America. Like a visit to the Coke Museum in Atlanta, it’s inherently satisfying and rewarding to experience something so baked into the framework of American culture. Though instead of the Coca-Cola polar bear, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are there.  

The two A-listers are teaming up again to dramatize the story of how Nike struck an unprecedented sneaker deal with Michael Jordan. There’s something so wonderfully anachronistic yet simple about a group of talented filmmakers setting out to tell such a straightforward narrative, doing so in under two hours and leaving well enough alone. Nothing more, nothing less. I guess you could say they just… do it (heh). "Air" is set in the 1980s and has the trappings of a great movie from that decade that would’ve done gangbusters at the box office.  

Among the talented filmmakers here is Ben Affleck, directing a screenplay from Alex Convery. Affleck also stars in a supporting role as Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The company’s struggling basketball division, running a distant third to Converse and Adidas at the time, is led in part by Sonny Vaccaro (Damon). He’s essentially a talent scout who’s supposed to take the limited budget allotted to him and find the next big basketball star who can make the world see the Nike brand as more than just running shoes.

That next big star is, of course, Michael Jordan — just drafted by the Chicago Bulls out of North Carolina with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. It’s widely agreed Jordan is going to be good … but good enough for Sonny to stake his — and Nike’s — reputation on? Sonny has to make the sales pitch of a lifetime to both the Nike brass and Jordan’s parents (Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, Julius Tennon as James Jordan).  

'Creed III' review: A feat of stamina for the enduring franchise 
'Creed III' review: A feat of stamina for the enduring franchise 

'Creed III' review: A feat of stamina for the enduring franchise 

Michael B. Jordan delivers both in front of and behind the camera for yet another winning entry in the “Rocky” franchise.

LEARN MORE

Damon is tremendously reliable in another winning performance. He’s playing a sneaker executive for a ubiquitous company who also feels like the audience surrogate, because he knows what we’ve had decades to experience: Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. That said, "Air" relies a little too much on the benefit of hindsight rather than better establishing why Sonny has such a specific feeling that Jordan is the real deal.  

Davis, as Jordan’s mother, also knows her son is legit, more so than Jordan himself does at the time. While Chris Messina plays Jordan’s agent, David Falk (and is hysterical in the role), Deloris is the one calling the shots. She’s ultimately accepting meetings with her son’s prospective business partners, and she’s the one who sits down with Sonny when he shows up unannounced at the family’s North Carolina home. Exuding humble confidence and a maternal instinct to do right by her child, Davis is as good as ever. She’s an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and somehow I think she’s still under-appreciated. 

As fun as it is to watch Damon and Affleck as scene partners, Damon and Davis are even better, even when it’s over the phone. Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, Matthew Maher and Marlon Wayans all make the most of their appearances, rounding out an impressive cast that I would’ve gladly spent more time watching banter.  

Notably absent is Michael Jordan himself, whose face is not actually seen outside of archival footage. He’s present in board rooms for negotiations, but we never get a real glimpse of him. Damian Delano Young is the actor who’s the MJ stand-in, shot from behind or with his face turned away from the camera. That’s certainly a decisive creative choice, and one that makes a lot of sense given the story "Air" is telling revolves around MJ but isn’t necessarily about him. And if that’s the case, why try casting someone to portray a global icon in just a limited role? That very well could have distracted from the movie, though the lengths that are taken to avoid showing Jordan did begin to strain credulity and become distracting anyway. It’s not an easy position to put yourself in; I respect the decision more than the execution.  

The needle drops throughout the film are some of the best in recent memory, and "Air" is easily the most universally crowd pleasing, rah-rah America production since last year’s "Top Gun: Maverick." When I got home from the screening, I spent way too much time watching any YouTube video I could find of starting lineup announcements of that championship Chicago Bulls team. It’s even cooler knowing what went on behind the scenes of something as seemingly simple as MJ wearing the sneakers he had on during those epic introductions.