The story of how Michael Jordan was attracted to Nike at the time, “Air,” soars to new heights. Everyone knows how the courtship of Michael Jordan by an upstart shoe company named Nike ended, but the details of how that happened run up the score for “Air,” director/co-star Ben Affleck’s affectionate and fun ode to the pursuit of greatness. Capturing the nexus between sports and business in a glow of ’80s nostalgia, it is, like its inspiration, a winner.
Affleck teams up yet again with Matt Damon, as the two play the pivotal roles of Nike CEO Phil Knight – who sits barefooted in his office when he isn’t spouting Zen-like axioms – and the company’s then-head of basketball marketing, Sonny Vaccaro, a guy with a gambler’s instincts who famously bet everything – including his own career – on a rookie coming out of North Carolina, going beyond the usual licensing deal to build an entire brand around him.
There was, not surprisingly, plenty of resistance to that, which provides the foundation of Alex Convery’s savvy script, which mixes a profound love of hoops with an underdog tale that in some ways mirrors Damon’s last fact-based starring role, “Ford v. Ferrari.”
The shrewdest move, however, comes in the decision to leave a Michael Jordan-shaped donut hole in the middle of the movie, keeping him mostly off screen, while leaving that part of the story to Viola Davis as his protective and strong-willed mother, Deloris.
“The mommas run stuff,” Vaccaro is told early on, and his courtship of Deloris and her husband James (Julius Tennon) becomes the film’s centerpiece, augmented by the skepticism of Vaccaro’s boss, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and his profane exchanges with Jordan’s hard-charging agent, David Falk (Chris Messina).
Davis has made a habit of stealing movies, and “Air” is no different, with her again emerging as its MVP in a supporting capacity. While it’s early in the year to begin contemplating such things, it’s not hard to envision another awards campaign in her future.
Detailed knowledge of the NBA circa 1984 isn’t mandatory, but those who can remember names like Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin (other players drafted the same year that Jordan was) will get an extra kick from the throwaway dialogue. Plus, Affleck punctuates the film with clever trappings of the period, such as using music from the appropriately titled “Risky Business” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
As noted, “Air” doesn’t benefit from much suspense, and the movie sags a bit in the middle as a consequence. Still, it’s fascinating to see Nike portrayed as a scrappy underdog, watching Vaccaro work to preempt market leaders Adidas and Converse and deal with the vagaries of chasing high school and college athletes, before he turned against the system by championing a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s model of amateurism.
Affleck has directed five movies in the last 16 years, the last (“Live By Night”) coming seven years ago. While this represents a considerably lighter story than his Oscar-winning “Argo,” in terms of its sheer appeal “Air” flies pretty high indeed, in part because its coach is savvy enough to let his winning lineup of all-stars take the ball and run with it.
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