Growing up as the designated Family Homosexual™, I wasn’t particularly privy to watching sports, and especially not playing them (I was a chorus/theatre kid, big shock). The little about sports I did know as a child of a family from Tennessee and Alabama certainly wasn’t about basketball, it was football. The firm divide in my family between Tennessee fans (my family), Alabama fans (my father’s family, sans his brother), and Florida fans (my father’s brother) was fierce and sometimes brutal, but basketball, aside from the occasional look at the Tennessee Women’s Basketball Team, aka the “Lady Vols,” during the reign of coach Pat Summitt (R.I.P. Queen). Upon moving to Durham, North Carolina, in 2002, we were greeted with a massive culture shock as the football in the state took a sharp backseat to that of the men’s basketball scene, particularly the savage rivalry between Durham-based private university, Duke, and the historic, Chapel Hill-based public university, University of North Carolina. There is absolutely nothing like the atmosphere of the entire Triangle area during a Duke-UNC game, and even if you don’t watch/don’t care, you still can’t help but find yourself immersed in what others are feeling on the matter. It’s also impossible to have grown up anywhere in the immediate vicinity of UNC without basking in the legacy of Michael Jordan, regarded as the best basketball player of all time, and proud UNC alum, whose legacy spans so far beyond his time at UNC, it’s nearly unreal to think about. While Air is not a biopic of Jordan’s (his face is never even shown in the film), Ben Affleck’s docudrama helps tell the story of the one partnership that solidified Jordan’s legacy in history without even having to take anything he ever did on the court into consideration.
The year is 1984 and the basketball shoe market is dominated by Adidas, followed by Converse, and trailing behind is Nike at a paltry 17% share. With the board of directors looking to shut the basketball division down due to poor sponsorships and a hemorrhaging of money, they offer the team one last shot to nail down a good group of sponsored athletes before the end of the 1984 season. Emboldened by their egotistical, but passionate CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), marketing executives Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) scramble to capture lightning before they are shut down. While initially sticking to a tight budget and the status quo of simply having a few certain athletes wear their existing shoes, Vaccaro, inspired by Michael Jordan’s performance in the 1982 NCAA Championship while at UNC, sets his sights on signing Jordan and Jordan alone. The problem begins with Jordan being unwilling to meet with Nike, desiring to sign with Adidas. With his team, as well as some helpful persuasion of Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), Vaccaro and his team make one last ditch effort with all of their resources to impress Jordan, sign him, and save the Nike basketball division.
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way first…is Air 100% an ad for Nike? Absolutely, clearly, and shamelessly so, but there’s a sort of genius to the absolute audacity of that. Sure, this might be a grand marketing ploy by Nike to subconsciously get you to buy their shoes, one that conveniently has a very interesting story and talented people at the center of it, but as a film about the power of good marketing, there’s something incredibly clever and meta about using a film about marketing to market, let alone do it well. It somewhat proves the point that Air’s story is making in-and-of-itself. Sure, call it late-stage capitalism (the fact this film is distributed by Amazon Studios is another layer onto that cake, should you so want it), but if you’re going to make ads, the least you can do is make a good one.
And luckily, this is a damned good one.
What works most about Air is that it’s a sports movie without having to be a sports movie. Sure, you can love basketball and have had followed Jordan’s career from the start, and there’s going to be a ton for you to pick up on throughout the film, but even for someone like myself, with pretty much zero knowledge of anything about the sport aside from the time my sister played basketball for her Catholic middle school, there is just as much to enjoy. The seed of this universal nature comes from the absolutely pin-sharp screenplay from first-time screenwriter Alex Convery which combines a high-stakes workplace thriller with a lighthearted sports comedy that balances these contrasting tones wonderfully. We all know how the story ends, but the arduous journey that Convery and, conversely, Affleck as director take the audience on still manages to feel like truly anything could happen at the drop of a hat.
Affleck, as talented as a director as he is an actor (and he is a talented actor), doesn’t really take a subtle approach to the film’s direction, but it actually ends up working in the film’s favor as it imbues a pretty pronounced style to the film complete with needle-drops, cutaways, and archival footage. It’s occasionally frenetic, but never out of place. It takes itself seriously when it needs to, particularly with any scene involving the true MVP of the film, Viola Davis, but knows when to play its hand at levity, which works well due to the legendary rapport between Affleck and Damon.
Air might dethrone Ford v Ferrari as the daddiest Dad Movie™ to ever exist as it hits every beat you would expect a historical dad movie to hit, but thankfully gives things a slight twist to keep the family’s attention (if they can watch R-rated films) and never overstays its welcome like the aforementioned film absolutely did. It’s efficient, funny, and provides an interesting and detailed look into a world I never knew anything about with alacrity. Sure, let’s not pretend like Nike was ever “the little guy,” nor should we pretend that Amazon is getting back into the theatrical distribution game with this title. But offering 112 minutes of immense entertainment with veteran actors, a talented director, and a wonderfully sharp screenplay? Sell me whatever you want.
In theaters April 5th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official MGM Air webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.