It’s been quite a while since Ben Affleck directed a film. Although he was able to get his creative juices flowing again by writing the screenplay to the criminally underrated The Last Duel with Matt Damon and Nicole Holofcener, he hasn’t helmed a project since 2016’s critical and commercial disappointment Live By Night. Partnering with fellow producer and co-star Matt Damon once again, Amazon Studios’ Air seems like a calculated course correction for Affleck. Based on the incredible true story of Nike’s attempt to sign legendary athlete Michael Jordan in the rookie stages of his career, Air succeeds at being a crowd-pleaser that, while not exactly unique, reaffirms Ben Affleck’s status as a great director.
The year is 1984 and Nike is in trouble. The company’s share of the market lags dangerously behind top dogs Adidas and Converse. At the behest of co-founder Phil Knight (Affleck), marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) looks to secure an up-and-coming talent to help put the brand back on top. Sonny zeroes in on what seems to be a burgeoning phenomenon in the elusive player Michael Jordan. Knight shuts this idea down, believing the payout for Jordan to be too high and the other offers by the competition too lucrative. Nonetheless, alongside field representative Howard White (Chris Tucker) and marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Sonny pursues Jordan full steam ahead. To get the man who will become the greatest basketball player of all time, Sonny must first go through Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina), and then his headstrong parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James Jordan (Julius Tennon).
Ben Affleck approaches the true story of Air with a contagious energy. Immediately opening the film with the rockin’ sound of “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits accompanying a montage of the year 1984, there’s a very specific sense of time and place, bolstered by excellent production design work. A tasteful amount of film grain covers the screen, letting the fluorescent lights of the Nike offices appear warm and inviting rather than cold, as shot by the always-fantastic cinematographer Robert Richardson. The fast-talking script by Alex Convery, combined with snappy editing work via William Goldberg, instills an urgency in this turning point for Nike. One almost forgets how this tale actually ends, since the pure stress of trying to secure this potentially company-saving basketball client drives Air forward.
A movie like this lives or dies on the strength of its characters, and the cast of Air has these in spades. Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro carries with him a singular purpose: building a brand around a rising star he truly believes in. That purpose makes him a deeply sympathetic, easy-to-root-for protagonist. Sonny carries no cynicism, even when butting heads with the cost-averse Phil Knight, continuing Ben Affleck’s recent trend of deliciously hamming it up in supporting roles (looking at you, The Last Duel), or Chris Messina’s pain-in-the-ass agent. Sonny’s friendship with Jason Bateman’s Rob Strasser is genuinely heartwarming as well. A scene where the two discuss the risks associated with pursuing Jordan with no guarantees pulls on the heartstrings. And of course, it’s always nice to see Chris Tucker on the silver screen. Marlon Wayans even leaves a strong if brief impression as Jordan’s former Olympics coach George Raveling.
The heart and soul of Air really come from the idea of putting belief in oneself or another. Sonny believes he can restore Nike to its former glory by putting immense talent behind a sneaker. The elusive Michael Jordan believes in himself to such a degree that he’s almost unattainable. And Deloris Jordan, wonderfully brought to life by Viola Davis, believes deeply in the worth of her son. Much of Air is about proving to Deloris that Nike believes in her son as much as she does. And watching Sonny travel from Nike HQ in Oregon to the Jordans in North Carolina to try to prove that high level of faith makes for the film’s best scene. Sonny makes a bet with Deloris as to exactly how Adidas and Converse are going to pitch themselves to Michael soon. If he’s right, the Jordan family takes a meeting with him.
All of Air builds to a breathless, no pun intended, climax when Jordan does take the meeting with Nike. In a speech that seems primed to be clipped for its sheer power, Sonny explains the sheer legacy Jordan has in front of him – with its expected peaks and valleys – is more valuable to Nike than anything. It’s in this sequence that Ben Affleck’s Air reveals itself to be about more than the establishment of the Air Jordan brand, but about the growing value athletes will begin to see in their selves and the road towards fair equity for talent. Because of this Air goes beyond a cookie-cutter sports biopic into being an important documentation of history and contemporary culture.
What works a bit less well is the implementation of Michael Jordan himself. Never showing his face, except for in archival footage, the man becomes more of a symbol than a flesh-and-blood human being. To a degree, this works and Affleck has explained this was a deliberate directorial choice, but it comes off as awkward whenever the stand-in for Jordan simply doesn’t react in important scenes involving him. It also teeters on self-indulgent, yet with a player this iconic it makes sense why they took this approach, even if it does come off as a bit odd. When figures like geeky shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) are fleshed out to such a strong degree, it does feel like a bit of a cheat that the basketball phenom himself doesn’t get a three-dimensional big-screen interpretation.
That’s neither here nor there, though. Air will play like gangbusters for all audiences, not just the basketball fans and sneakerheads. Gathering together an embarrassment of behind and in-front-of-the-camera talent, Ben Affleck uses earnest thematic depth and strong period detail to turn a story about a business deal into something much more poignant. This seems like it might actually be on track to dethrone Ford v. Ferrari as the go-to “dad movie” of the modern era. Consider Air an unqualified slam dunk for Ben Affleck the director.