‘Air’ is a crowd-pleasing sports drama packed with ‘80s nostalgia and stellar acting performances

By Zach Goins

April 6, 2023

A standard pair of Air Jordan 1s will set you back $170 at retail value today– a hefty increase from the sneaker’s $65 price tag when it first debuted back in 1985. But in today’s sneaker culture, $170 is reasonable compared to the astronomical costs on the resale market, with some pairs selling for thousands. 

That’s the cost of greatness. As the new film Air preaches, a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it. But when that someone is Michael Jordan, cost is no object, and that’s exactly what director Ben Affleck’s new sports drama showcases.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in ‘Air.’ Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

To think of a multi-billion dollar company like Nike as an underdog seems impossible, but Air turns back the clock to 1984, a time when Nike’s basketball division was on the brink of collapse. Competitors like Adidas and Converse are wiping the floor with the Swoosh, and basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is running out of ways to shake up the shoe industry and elevate Nike beyond mediocrity. All the while, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) is breathing down Vaccaro’s neck, handcuffing him to a limited budget and is hesitant to support Vaccaro’s last-ditch effort.

The plan? Forget signing multiple athletes and spreading the wealth. Go all in on one player and build your entire brand around him. The player? Michael Jordan.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in ‘Air.’ Photo: Ana Carballosa / Amazon Studios

With his job on the line, Vaccaro refuses to accept defeat in Nike’s pursuit of Jordan and is willing to pull out all the stops, from making promises behind Knight’s back to knocking on Jordan’s front door unannounced for a home visit with his mother (Viola Davis). It’s made clear early on that Vaccaro is a gambling man, and he’s determined to make Michael Jordan his biggest bet yet. After pioneering the concept of high school all-star games and scouting basketball for decades, Vaccaro’s hunches have a track record of success.

Air isn’t the story of Michael Jordan, though. The stand-in actor who plays His Airness is only ever seen from behind and has just a few lines of dialogue. Instead, it’s the inspiring, behind-the-scenes story of the people who helped make Jordan a legend. Off the court, that is. On it, he didn’t need any help cementing his legendary status.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Chris Tucker as Howard White in ‘Air.’ Photo: Ana Carballosa / Amazon Studios

On paper, a movie like Air has no business being this compelling. Boardroom meetings, marketing strategies, business negotiations– it’s not exactly cinema’s most thrilling stuff. On top of that, anyone with a shred of sports, fashion or business knowledge should know how this story ends. Yet Air manages to reel viewers in with a stellar ensemble cast and lovable characters, paired with sharp dialogue and sleek direction to create a thrilling film. Affleck’s to-the-point directing style allows the story to flow without ever feeling too bogged down in the specifics, making the 112-minute runtime feel like a breeze.

Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro is a scrappy, relatable protagonist who just won’t take no for an answer, making it easy to root for the character and the company, as the odds are stacked against them. Surrounding Vaccaro is an ensemble of suits brought to life by Jason Bateman (former Nike Director of Marketing Rob Strasser), Chris Tucker (Nike executive Howard White), and Matthew Maher (former Nike Creative Director Peter Moore) in performances so charismatic it’s easy to see why the Jordan family chose Nike. Affleck’s own portrayal of Phil Knight takes a backseat to Damon’s leading role, but provides the necessary friction with Vaccaro to spark the film’s drama. 

Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan and Julius Tennon as James Jordan in ‘Air.’ Photo: Ana Carballosa / Amazon Studios

Outside of the Nike businessmen, though, it’s Oscar-winner Viola Davis’s portrayal of Deloris Jordan (Michael’s mother) that takes Air to the next level. Davis brings tremendous gravitas to the film as the soft-spoken but stern matriarch of the Jordan family. Her back-and-forth with Damon creates some of the movie’s most electric conversations, and each actor delivers their own rousing monologue in the film’s final act that elevates Air from good to great.

Air doesn’t reinvent the sports drama in any way, nor does it try to, yet it follows the genre’s formula so well that it never needs to do anything extra. Affleck plays the hits, quite literally, in a movie jam-packed with ‘80s nostalgia, from beepers to Wheaties, and a soundtrack that features just about every hit from the decade you could imagine.

Air is the definition of a crowd-pleaser, and with a cast this talented and a story this compelling, it’s easy to see why. 

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