“Air” is a sports marketing drama that delivers satisfying entertainment with a feel-good, universal appeal. Never would I have guessed that a film about business deals and shoe marketing would be so engaging, but this true story about the game-changing partnership in 1984 between an NBA rookie named Michael Jordan and the athletic apparel company Nike is gratifying on all levels. You don’t have to be a basketball fan or even know anything about Jordan to enjoy this film. It’s a biopic all right – but of the men behind the Air Jordan sneaker line, not the superstar athlete.
Directed by Ben Affleck (who also co-stars), the film explores the history of how the legendary Air Jordan sneaker line was birthed into existence, telling the story of the high-stakes business gamble that had the potential to make or break Nike.
When scout and basketball division lead Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) sets his sights on the talented UNC rookie (who has recently been drafted by the Chicago Bulls) to be the athlete that Nike needs to boost their shoe line, he is met with resistance from his team of reluctant colleagues. They’re skeptical at first, but eventually find Sonny’s passion to be contagious and hop on board.
Much of the narrative is focused on the behind-the-scenes company men, discussions about money, and valid concerns about taking a huge risk on Sonny’s gut feeling that this kid has the potential to become an international sports superstar. There’s a lot shown about the creativity process, brainstorming sessions, and outside-the-box marketing that helped Nike sell their shoes to an up-and-coming NBA player. Although it may sound like it, this isn’t a dry business story, but an enjoyable film filled with casual charm.
Affleck includes a who’s who of Nike in the 80s, from Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), Nike’s Creative Director and the man who designed the Air Jordan sneaker (and also had the brilliant idea to put Jordan’s silhouette on the product line), Howard White (Chris Tucker), who influenced the basketball player to sign with the company, Marketing Director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and Nike co-founder Phil Knight (Affleck), who credits the Air Jordan as the product that saved his company.
A secondary plot line involves Sonny’s efforts to convince Jordan’s bulldog agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and family, in particular his smart and savvy mother Deloris (Viola Davis), to sign with Nike over the more popular competing brands Converse and Adidas. Discussions between Sonny and Deloris deliver the film’s most powerful scenes, especially when you see a tenacious mother who knows her son’s worth and has no problem holding her own in a room full of corporate suits. It’s unusual to find a film that keeps the audience invested in the story from both sides, and I found myself hoping for Sonny to land a great contract but also for Deloris to get the best deal possible for her son and family.
To reveal more about the story would constitute major spoilers, especially if you are unfamiliar with the history of the shoe, but Affleck’s storytelling is so engaging that it will keep you emotionally invested even if you know the eventual outcome.
As a director, Affleck has an enviable, natural flair for telling true stories. His casual style and instincts are on full display here. The film is an example of one of those instances that are few and far between, where the subject matter is the perfect match for the director. This is a story that obviously is close to Affleck’s heart, and it’s reflected throughout the film.
“Air” is a well-made movie about the American Dream from two different sides of the equation. There aren’t many missteps here, and everything from the direction, lively screenplay (written by Alex Convery), and warm performances all flow together in perfect harmony.
By: Louisa Moore