The Spool / Movies
Air boasts bounce and a bit of bite
Ben Affleck's Air Jordan dramedy is a lot of fun—and welcomely sharp.
SimilarAnna and the King (1999), Brubaker (1980), Freedom Writers (2007), I Stand Alone (1998), Mississippi Burning (1988) Raging Bull (1980), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006),
Watch afterGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023), The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023),
MPAA RatingR
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Ben Affleck’s Air Jordan dramedy is fun—and welcomely sharp.

What makes an object meaningful? The plans its creators had for it? The image that its consumers build into it? The purpose it serves? The one who wields it?

Or, to put it another way, when is a sneaker just a sneaker, and when is it the Air Jordan? And if it is the Air Jordan, how did it become so? Air, Ben Affleck‘s delightful return to directing, offers answers to those questions, both literal and otherwise.

At its most direct level, Air follows Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike’s resident basketball expert, as he tries to:

  • 1: Convince Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), basketball marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), basketball recruitment executive Howard White (Chris Tucker), and company that third-drafted point guard Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young from behind and archival footage) is not just a basketball player but the basketball player, someone capable of pulling Nike out of its third-place-in-the-industry-and-thinking-of-quitting basketball doldrums.
  • 2: Convince the Jordan family—particularly matriarch Deloris (Viola Davis) even to take a meeting with Nike. Michael’s first choice sneaker—and thus first choice for an endorsement deal—is Adidas (the basketball brand in 1984). And Deloris is adamant that any endorsement deal be worthy of the athlete her son is and the athlete she knows he will be, a deal that understands that it will not be Adidas/Converse/Nike presents Michael Jordan but Michael Jordan wears Adidas/Converse/Nike.
  • 3: Create the best basketball sneaker in history once 1 and 2 are tentatively accomplished.
Director Ben Affleck pulls (hysterical) double duty as would-be-zen-CEO Phil Knight in Air. MGM/Amazon.

Air‘s a lot of fun on this first level. Affleck builds space for his ensemble to do their work and do it well. Damon’s a solid, reliable lead as Vaccaro—determined to make the Jordan deal happen by his gambler’s drive and a growing belief that Jordan is and will be an epochal talent. Davis’ Deloris Jordan is cool, loving, and precise—a keen people observer and master of verbal jujitsu. Tucker’s White and Bateman’s Strasser make fun foils to Damon’s Vaccaro as peers coming to the same conclusion about Jordan that he did in their own ways. Chris Messina’s turn as Jordan’s agent David Falk interweaves bombast and seen-a-lot contented weariness. And Affleck is hysterical as Nike CEO Phil Knight, the self-styled “Shoe Dog” who sees himself as a zen-following ever-cool master businessman—and while he is a legitimately skilled businessman, he’s mostly a garishly-dressed trying-way-too-hard goofball.

The ensemble delivers writer Alex Convery‘s script with zeal—whether Damon and Messina’s shouty, screwball phone conversations or Davis and Damon’s quiet recognition of their common ground (both know Michael Jordan will be spectacular) as they negotiate a potentially industry-changing deal. It’s zippy, breezy work—which Affleck buttresses through well-assembled montages (one sets the time and place, another offers an abbreviated history of Michael Jordan’s ups and downs).

Matthew Maher’s Peter Moore, Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro, and Jason Bateman’s Rob Strasser discuss the practical aspects of building the most beautiful basketball shoe ever made in Ben Affleck’s Air. MGM/Amazon.

Fun as it is, Air really clicks for me because of its pointedness. This is a movie about the creation of a ridiculously successful Nike sneaker that Amazon is releasing. This is not a scorching denunciation of capitalism’s existence. But Affleck and company’s work does have a bite to it. Vaccaro and his peers lead lonely, work-defined lives. The work pays well, and it has its satisfactions, but more often than not, they’re going home alone (and in some cases, they’re not going home at all). Messina’s Falk outright admits that he has no one in his life who isn’t a client or a business relationship—and while the money is spectacular, he’s still eating alone.

The Air Jordan 1 is a beautiful sneaker, an influential piece of fashion art and athletic design work. And it’s a product whose maker has exploited labor and cut corners more than once. It is more than just a vessel to make money; it is always a vessel to make money. And it’s part of a broader industry that uses the likenesses and images of athletes without necessarily paying them their fair cut (later in life, Vaccaro would play a key role in the lawsuit against the NCAA that ruled that colleges could compensate their players).

Viola Davis’ Deloris Jordan negotiates on behalf of her son—insisting that he earn what he deserves in Ben Affleck’s Air. MGM/Amazon.

Air recognizes the work that went into creating the Air Jordan. It celebrates Deloris Jordan’s insistence on Michael’s getting a deal worthy of him, Vaccaro’s drive to get his peers to recognize the enormity of who Jordan would become, and the craft of the sneaker itself. It’s far more ambivalent about the business side of things—even though it is inextricable from signing the deal and creating the sneaker. It’s a welcome bit of thorniness.

I dug Air, and while I have my quibbles with its “seen only fleetingly and with extreme taste” presentation of Jordan himself (Namely that Jordan’s history is fascinating and fraught, and while Air is set at the very beginning of his professional career, I don’t think the picture navigates the relationship between Jordan-the-young-man and Jordan-the-icon-he-will-become quite as well as Davis does with her work as Deloris Jordan), it’s a fine piece of work from Affleck. The ensemble (particularly Davis and Affleck) do excellent work, and the picture’s examination of the multiple layers of meaning that go into a sneaker and its endorsement deal is compelling. This is a movie well worth watching, on its own or as part of a double feature with Steven Soderbergh’s excellent basketball business movie High Flying Bird. Check it out.

Air is now playing in theaters.

Air Trailer:

SimilarAnna and the King (1999), Brubaker (1980), Freedom Writers (2007), I Stand Alone (1998), Mississippi Burning (1988) Raging Bull (1980), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006),
Watch afterGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023), The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023),
MPAA RatingR