MANILA, PHILIPPINES — The phenomenon of Michael Jordan is something that has changed many things in the world. Beyond his skill and competitiveness on a basketball court, Jordan is credited with crossing over from the sports world into popular culture, creating the blueprint that every professional athlete since has been seeking to replicate.
For basketball junkies, the story of Nike signing Jordan to his first contract has long been a revered tale that was too good to be true. Thus, when director Ben Affleck and his best friend and co-Oscar winner Matt Damon decided to make a film around that story, anticipation was high on whether or not they could do it justice. Air does exactly that and more.
In 1984, Nike is a struggling brand. Far from being a global force, it is lagging behind Converse and founder Phil Knight (played by Affleck) is more known for his eccentricities and purple sports car than for being a success.
As the company aches to craft its own identity, Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) has a unique idea. Create a whole marketing campaign around an unproven collegiate player who has not even played a single professional NBA game. His colleagues Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) think Sonny is crazy to even consider it. Someone who listens to the beat of his own drum, Knight needs to be convinced that the gamble is worth it.
Vaccaro sets his sights not on a junior coming out of the University of North Carolina, 21-year-old Michael Jordan. Despite Jordan stating his preference to sign with adidas and not wanting to meet with Vaccaro or anyone at Nike, Sonny insists he needs to meet the young man. He even does the unthinkable: go directly to the Jordan home in North Carolina.
If Sonny can just talk to Michael’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis), he knows he can close the deal with the kid. Michael’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina) explicitly warns Vaccaro not to go around him, but when the latter does, it results in Deloris insisting that Michael listen to what Nike has to say. What follows is the most legendary courtship of an athlete by a brand, and the resulting partnership has resulted in success that nobody could have dreamed of.
Even if you aren’t a basketball aficionado or know next to nothing about Michael Jordan, the story of Air will still provide enough entertainment to keep you engaged. The script from Alex Convery and the performances by Damon, Affleck, Davis, and the rest of the ensemble are too good to ignore.
From the opening montage that grounds the film right in the mid-’80s to the amazing all-’80s soundtrack, Air brings the audience directly to a time when Nike had not yet found the magic that would make it a near-ubiquitous entity today. Seeing Knight and Nike at this point in time actually reinforces the notion that Knight had to go against what the then-giants of the shoe industry were doing in order to carve their own path.
Damon as Vaccaro captures the reckless and fearless attitude that resulted in failed marriages and relationships that made him gamble too much in Las Vegas. It also embodied the huge gamble that all of them would have to take on the then-unproven Jordan.
The personality clashes Sonny had with Knight and Falk proved to be especially explosive as each man was protective of his respective territory while wary that the other was encroaching and taking something from them.
To say that Tucker, Messina, and Davis stole every scene they were in seems ridiculous, but they were that good in this film. The combination of excellent script, real events captured, and top actors performing make for an enjoyable experience with practically every scene forcing the audience to pay attention to the action.
While Air is the story of how Nike would end up securing Jordan, the man himself is kept mostly in the background. The filmmakers have explained that Jordan’s presence is so huge that casting anyone in the role would have caused all eyes to gravitate toward that character, taking all the attention with him.
What Affleck as director does is make Jordan almost like a wraith or shadow, never fully seen or facing the camera. Focus is instead placed on other people with him such as his parents or Vaccaro, Knight, and the designer of the first Air Jordan, Peter Moore (Matthew Maher). In no way does it diminish the film, and it lets the story and the performances shine in Jordan’s place.
You don’t have to be a basketball fan nor even familiar with Michael Jordan to enjoy Air. This story of taking huge risks, believing in something that can’t be measured, going against the grain, and (surprisingly) just listening to your parents’ advice, will resonate with anyone who has ever dreamed on a grand scale.
Air is now streaming on Amazon Prime.