Ben Affleck and Matt Damon Talk ‘Air’ and Its Deeper Significance

We are a society obsessed with brands. The clothes and accessories now make the person. Much of the power of selling an item has to do with how it evokes some sort of desire. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, “Air,” dramatizes the story of how Nike clinched a historic deal with Michael Jordan. It would be the deal that not only put Nike on the map, it also stunned many with the way Jordan was given a share in profits. At first, the idea of turning the story of the famous shoes into cinema may seem quirky. It’s the kind of subject more fit for a documentary. Yet Affleck makes it work with a crackling script by Alex Convery and excellent cast. He reunites with old friend Matt Damon, who you may recall won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar with Affleck back in 1997 for “Good Will Hunting.” 

Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball scout for Nike who feels the pressure in 1984 when the company, though successful, trails behind top rival Adidas. While looking around for talent to sign, he comes across the NBA’s third draft pick, Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young), who plays for the Chicago Bulls. Sonny instantly sees the magic and has to convince Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) this is a risk worth taking. He also needs to get through an even more powerful force of nature, Jordan’s mother, Delores Jordan (Viola Davis), who will not accept any deal that does not give her son true equity in the use of his visage to sell and embody a product. 

“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.” Before fully embarking on the project, Affleck sought the advice of a specific source, Michael Jordan himself. “I’m lucky to have enough of an in to be able to ask Michael, ‘can I come see you and run this past you?’ To be honest, from the point of view of the respect I have for him, if he had said ‘don’t do it,’ I wouldn’t have done it. What I found was that he was very gracious. It was telling that he didn’t talk much about himself, he always talked about other people and who he felt needed to be included in the story.”

“We were really trying to capture the spirit of these people and their times,” says Matt Damon. “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.” For Damon, “Air” can also be seen as forming part of a particular breed of positive movies. “It’s one of those stories that comes along and it’s for everybody. We used to call them feel-good movies. That’s what it is. You should be able to leave the theater with a skip in your step.” Damon was even more convinced of the film’s stirring potential while attending its premiere at the South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. “I’ve been to so many film festivals and there we felt this real excitement in the air. Everyone was excited for the movie and to have us there. I’ll never forget it.”

What instantly grabbed Affleck on an emotional level was Jordan’s devotion to his mother. “Being around Michael does indeed feel like being around some deity or Olympic god,” says Affleck. “But then I noticed he would get into this real sense of awe and devotion when he would mention his mother. I knew then this is really the story of Delores Jordan. She is so emblematic of what so many mothers must mean to so many athletes and entertainers, who often get started very young and are thrust into a world of money and fame. It requires an enormous amount of guidance.” The basketball icon even gave the director a key casting tip. “I asked Michael who should play Delores,” says Affleck, “and he immediately said, ‘it has to be Viola Davis.’ That’s like saying, ‘I need you to put a basketball team together and it has to have Michael Jordan.’ So we tried to craft a character that would be worthy of Viola.”

For the great Viola Davis, playing an icon’s mother came with its own sort of intimidation. “I usually always go in wondering if I belong there, impostor syndrome, and that’s before having to step into the world,” says Davis. “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.” For Davis a key component is the need to trust the filmmakers. “The thing with Ben is that you trust him. You sometimes go on set and don’t trust the director. Truth be told, in our profession there are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing. I’m not saying that from a place of condescension. Everyone sees the result of a career but not the journey. I’ve had a 40-year career where often I’ve trusted certain people and they’ve done me wrong (laughs). But here I really trusted Ben and his choices.”

In many ways, “Air” parallels Affleck and Damon’s recent venture into building their own studio, Artists Equity, which seeks to build a new studio model where creatives get more steak and projects are streamlined in a more inclusive manner. This is the first major project from the studio, with Amazon as distributor.  “The movie thematically paralleled the things we were trying to do and had ambitions for. We wanted to create a mini-studio,” says Affleck. “It’s kind of like what Nike sought to do in changing the rules. Ultimately they changed the way compensation worked to grant more responsibility and reward. It’s what we want to do with the artists who are also behind the camera and make the movie happen, who are not sometimes compensated appropriately.” A challenge is of course in taking on established norms. “We wanted to leave behind ego and the way money is wasted. It’s a humble aspiration but it’s difficult. There’s a model we’ve inherited from how movies have always been made. I’ve heard the speech so many times that Sonny tries to give Dolores about, ‘this is not how it works.’ I believe you should spend more on better-gifted people and value them. In the process I hope we can generate empathy and make movies everyone can enjoy.”

Air” releases April 5 in theaters nationwide.