‘Air’: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon Reunite for Air Jordan Origin Story That Plays To Win

A viewer could walk into “Air” without ever having bought a pair of Air Jordans and still find it fascinating. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort is part testimonial and part Ted Talk. You don’t even have to know how basketball necessarily works to get wrapped up in its kinetic pace. Its plot is taken from the true story of how Nike wallowed in underdog shoe wear status until it signed a certain prospect named Michael Jordan. Say the name of a basketball icon and “Air” sounds like another sports drama, but what Affleck and writer Alex Convery do is use Nike and sports mania to comment on what brands mean in America. Had Jordan not put on those shoes, would they carry any significance? 

This film also marks Affleck reuniting with old friend Matt Damon. The two picked up a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1997 for “Good Will Hunting.” Older, hopefully wiser, they begin “Air” as a reflection on chasing your prime at middle age. Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a scout for Nike, which is run by Phil Knight (Affleck), a go-getter who spouts eastern philosophies. The year is 1984. While the company is successful, it pales in comparison to the heights being reached by major rival Adidas. Desperate to find the right athlete for an endorsement deal, Sonny starts looking around at the latest NBA Draft and comes across Michael Jordan. Sonny perceives a talent and drive in the North Carolina native, who is third pick and plays for the Chicago Bulls. The eager scout becomes obsessed with getting Jordan to sign with the company, but in the process has to convince Phil and colleagues such as Howard White (Chris Tucker), or Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina), that it can work. Most important of all, Sonny has to also sell the idea to Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis).

“This is not historically accurate in the sense that I know exactly everything that was said behind closed doors,” Affleck tells Entertainment Voice, “It has to be something of a fable, a parable and inspiring story. I have to take liberties to make it an hour and thirty minutes. But I don’t want to violate anything that has to ring true.” Though based on real events, “Air” does depart a bit from Affleck’s usual style. As a director he has always been fascinated with stories of lives on the edge, colored with suspense, from his heist thriller “The Town” to the Oscar-winning “Argo,” about rescuing hostages during the Iranian Revolution. After having also tasted life within a major brand during his days as Batman in several DC movies, Affleck is ready to tell this story with the insights of an actor who has been asked to fill iconic clothing. The Air Jordan, even in its name, blends a personality with an item. Sonny knew the moment he saw Jordan play that this kid could bring Nike to life beyond good running gear. 

“We were really trying to capture the spirit of these people and their times,” Damon shares. “All of the people on the Nike side have talked about that time with such nostalgia. They were the underdog, which is such a weird way of thinking of Nike now. They were renegades and kind of outsiders. They had an infectious energy that jumped off the page.” The screenplay by Alex Convery feels driven by the rush of ambition. Sonny knows in his bones he has found a great prospect but Phil, played with almost satirical irony by Affleck, is the one who has to worry about the actual costs. Nike doesn’t feel like a mega brand, more like a crew of misfits. Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman play the other key team members who constantly debate, ponder and resist too much hope when Sonny bursts into the office with his find. Matthew Maher plays Peter Moore, who works virtually in the basement, designing the company’s shoes, approaching his task like an endearing artist. The scene where Moore introduces the Air Jordan, with its defiant red coloring (which went against NBA regulations), feels like the unveiling of the Mona Lisa. Master cinematographer Robert Richardson keeps the film feeling alive and moving, almost with a higher-budget indie feel.

Sports, like movies or music, can be its own confined world, yet many of the general business practices are very similar. David Falk protects his client Jordan ruthlessly, talking like a real shark to Sonny. Everyone knows Jordan is a big fan of Adidas. The German company is even willing to throw in the Mercedes the kid really wants if he agrees to sign with them. Here the movie pulls off a careful balancing act of sustaining the tension while bringing in the important character of Deloris Jordan. It’s a wonderful performance by Viola Davis in its strong, subdued tone. She’s so confident about her son’s talent and worth that she never negotiates with Sonny. She simply has to make it clear Michael Jordan is to be given a sense of dignity with any deal. “She has a Zen neutrality. That’s who she is. I wonder if she plays poker,” is how Davis puts it when discussing the character. “If you watch videos on Deloris, she’s very, very steady and quiet. I imagine even when she gets mad she’s very steady. To bring across that spirit is a challenge for me because I usually have a chip on my shoulder. I can be bombastic.” 

“Air” can be a collection of a clash of wills. Sonny’s battle to win over Jordan involves multiple egos and interests. While Damian Delano Young plays a convincing version of the sports icon as a teenager, he’s mostly shot from behind, rarely making his face visible. The third act then connects all these swirling dynamics into one final statement on what the Air Jordan will mean in the development of an icon. Affleck can be faulted for getting very romantic with montages celebrating Jordan as a contemporary Olympic god, yet that is what a public hero can mean to their fans. Watch Jordan do a slam dunk and it’s impossible not to be stirred. For a brief moment even chubby Sonny seems to finally get the urge to try jogging. Affleck and Damon also produced this film as a collaboration between Amazon and their new company, Artists Equity, which also seeks to give all involved talent real economic stake in the work. The deal Jordan struck with Nike stunned the business world by giving him an earning from every Air Jordan sold. “Air” isn’t necessarily celebrating the vast wealth the athlete attained as a result, but the idea that even in such a massive industry, there can still be some decency in a contract.

Air” releases April 5 in theaters nationwide.