Only in the movies can a company that openly boasts of being worth just shy of a billion dollars be considered a scrappy underdog. But that is somehow the premise of director Ben Affleck’s Air, a film that revels in its own clichés as it tells the origin story of the Air Jordan brand at Nike. Air is like an Adam McKay film without the class consciousness or Moneyball without a compelling protagonist. It switches from goofy to serious to philosophical without any real attempt at cohesion. Ironically, its best moments (most of which feature Viola Davis) ultimately undermine the film by revealing the hollowness of it all.
Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, who, with Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), manage Nike’s fledgling basketball shoe brand. Sonny hits the road for the brand to scout young talent. He often takes layovers in Las Vegas on his way back to the company headquarters in Oregon. There, he demonstrates his basketball acumen by winning money on NBA games. At this time, Nike, headed and founded by Phil Knight (Affleck), is considered by many to be only a track company. They lose out regularly to Adidas and Converse when it comes to signing top NBA talent.
One night, while eating one of his regular TV dinners alone, Sonny has the idea to push all his chips into the center. He wants to sign University of North Carolina star Michael Jordan. To do so, he suggests putting all of the company’s annual basketball budget (which would typically be spread out amongst a few new recruits) behind just this one young man. He tells his co-workers it is the kind of risk that the company needs to take to beat the big brands in the space.
Nike Basketball at that time, for sure, was an underdog when compared to other basketball shoe brands. But Air presents the dilemma before the company as if the top executives were working out of their garage. In fact, at one point, Sonny says to Phil Knight that the problem with the brand lies in a need to invest, implying not a lack of money but a lack of will. Much of the heightened drama that sits at the center of what follows concerns, in reality, a relatively small investment. The stakes are not nearly as high as the film’s tone implies. Thus, the dilemma is not, for example, whether the company will stay or go out of business but whether it will or will not get richer. It is a hard premise to buy and cause to get behind, one that Air never sells.
The other flaw in the film’s story comes in the form of Damon’s character, Sonny. Never are we given a true motivation beyond, “What this will do for the company?” No emotional strife, self-doubt, or stakes beyond Nike come into play. Instead, it becomes only about the bottom line, about what he can deliver to the company. It is fun to see his own personal satisfaction. But Air, based on real people and events, remains wanting in this regard.
Many of the film’s best scenes are those between Damon and Davis, who plays Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother. Damon said in interviews that Michael Jordan made clear to Affleck the need to have his mother prominently featured. And thank goodness he did. Davis, as Deloris, provides the human-driven subplot that the film desperately needs. We witness a mother looking out for her son—a family seeking to make the most of the opportunity before them. And we get to see up close Deloris’ business acumen.
Affleck makes the decision not to feature Michael as a character. Damian Young plays the young basketball star in the film, but we never see his face. We only catch brief glimpses of him during boardroom meetings, like the critical moment at Nike headquarters where the basketball shoe team, including Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), who designed the Jordan sneaker, offered their pitch. With the decision to keep the camera away from Michael, Affleck makes a smart decision. He decenters the icon, instead focusing on people who often do not get their due.
Air can be funny. But most of the time, it is over-the-top silly in a way that undercuts its more dramatic moments. One of the film’s best scenes features a phone conversation between Sonny and Deloris. They are on the brink of a deal. All of Sonny’s dreams are about to come true. But Delores asks for one thing: that the Jordans share in the profit of the shoe. It is a groundbreaking ask. Davis delivers a compelling response. She tactfully reveals the exploitative nature of the industry. And despite Sonny’s efforts, she insists that they are only asking for what is fair.
After their conversation, Sonny thinks the deal is dead. He brings the deal to Phil Knight, who Affleck plays like a quirky character out of Mad Men. Knight nonchalantly agrees, makes some weird jokes, and the story goes on. The implications of this decision, the historic ways in which it reshaped the industry, are pushed to the end credits. The decision makes it feel as though the film is shying away from substance; covering up for its inability to fully weave it all together in the narrative.
Air debuts in theaters on April 5, 2023.