Air ★★★½

In trying to convince Michael Jordan to sign an endorsement deal with Nike, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) spoke of “immortality” and the lasting legacy Jordan would leave that nobody else at the table – which included Vaccaro as well as Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) – would achieve. He may have been wrong about the rest of the table’s cultural impact, but he was not wrong about the shadow Jordan would create for all basketball players and athletes to follow. To this day, while some argue that LeBron James has surpassed him as the greatest basketball player of all-time, Jordan’s impact and influence is impossible to deny. One need only see the cultural zeitgeist created over the documentary series The Last Dance a few years ago to see that wherever Jordan goes, audiences and money go. Air is no exception with writer Alex Convery inspired by that documentary series to write this film about Vaccaro and Nike’s efforts to convince Jordan and his family to spurn basketball shoe giants Converse and Adidas to sign with Nike in 1984.

Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young) himself exists almost in the periphery of Air. We never see his face, just the back of his head or archival footage of the real Jordan playing. From his family, it is his mother Deloris (Viola Davis) controlling the negotiations. The result may be known to those familiar with the story and Air Jordan shoes, but Air excels in putting the audience on the ground with Sonny, marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Howard White (Chris Tucker), and Phil Knight, as they work towards making their pitch. Sonny knows he is on the precipice of something special, consumed with the stress, uncertainty, and fight against the Nike bureaucracy to even make the pitch a reality. The audience’s familiarity with Jordan is almost secondary, pushing it aside and being convinced of his greatness purely through hearing Sonny speak about what he sees when he watches Jordan play or in Deloris’ voice as she speaks about her son’s future. Air captures Jordan’s aura, presence, and stature in his youth in words alone with the reactions of the cast helping to shape why Jordan, beyond being a great player, has etched himself into the public consciousness for decades.

It takes a special cast and crew to make a film about the corporate world into an exciting experience, which is a credit to everybody involved with Air. Directed by Ben Affleck, the film aims for broad entertainment. It is urgent in its need to convince Jordan, but also funny and laid back, capturing a unique atmosphere that brings the culture of Nike in 1984 to life. Watching Phil Knight stare in horror at Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) skateboarding in the parking lot, Sonny and Rob working countless hours on the pitch and bonding in between sessions, and letting the audience in some “complaining” about Knight the employees do, are crucial character details or moments in a larger story. They add familiarity and heighten the camaraderie, while the lived-in and authentic performances from Damon, Tucker, Maher, and Bateman make them endearing figures. After all, this is a story of how a bunch of people had a crazy idea and are gobsmackingly rich, while the man they got to sign with them was likely to end up gobsmackingly rich no matter what he did. It is not easy to feel empathy for anybody, yet Air nails it in positioning them as idealistic underdogs fighting against the top companies in the industry with a limited budget and only their own salesmanship left to make their dreams a reality. At the end of the day, it is just a company signing a player to an endorsement deal with lots of talk about agents, meetings/presentations, work, and film watching, but it has the audience hanging on every development and feeling just as nervous as Sonny did waiting for the Jordan family to decide.

While the Nike employees come to life, it is hard to compete with Viola Davis in Air. From the moment she arrives, striding out of the Jordan family backyard to find her husband James (Julius Tennon) talking with Sonny in the driveway, Davis steals the film. She has such an air of confidence and steadiness that she is impossible to look away from, all the while Davis’ eyes tell a story before her mouth even opens. Her expressiveness and strong physical performance are crucial to Air, especially when she first speaks with Sonny or as the family goes through their various meetings. Everybody is looking to her for clues on how the pitch is going with every lift of an eyebrow or glare setting a tone from which Air benefits. Davis’ delivery is just as strong, capturing the motherly instinct that has led her to this position as well as the confidence and love she exudes when speaking of her son. In Sonny, she finds somebody else who gets “it” about Michael. He sees him as more than just another in a stable of athletes, rather he is the star and will be a legend. The confidence and chemistry that bond creates makes it evident, money-aside, why the deal worked with Davis and Damon shining on-screen together. The dialogue, both from Convery and ad-libbed by both performers, flows so naturally and authentically that Air rises on that crucial relationship.

Fast-paced and energetic, Air flies by and never lets up on the dramatic, lived-in tension of its story. Possessing a natural feeling, it is easy to get lost within the world of Nike in 1984, while enjoying the bond these co-workers share in their pursuit to landing the biggest star of their careers. A strong cast, great script, and Affleck’s deft direction combine to make Air a slam dunk.

Falling in love with cinema through a high school film class, Kevin furthered his knowledge of film through additional film classes in college. Learning about filmmaking through the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, and Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin continues to learn more about new styles and eras of film in the pursuit of improving his knowledge of filmmaking throughout the years. His favorite all-time directors include Hitchcock and Robert Altman, while his favorite contemporary directors include Wes Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, and Darren Aronofsky.

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