A Nike executive fights to outbid rivals from Adidas and Converse to sign NBA draftee Michael Jordan to a potentially lucrative shoe contract in Air, an engaging new corporate basketball story directed by Ben Affleck that opens in Prague and cinemas worldwide this weekend. The genesis of the Air Jordan sneaker may not seem like a must-see cinematic event, but this one comes close to soaring.
Part Moneyball and part The Social Network, Air allows a compelling story to largely tell itself; unlike Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo or the recent video game story Tetris, there’s no (obvious) jazzing up the tension with fictional intrigue. While Air hits nothing but net, however, it’s a step or two shy of a true NBA three-pointer.
Air stars Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike executive who instantly recognizes the greatness of Jordan and fights to sign him to a potentially lucrative – but initially costly – sneaker contract. But it’s 1984, and Nike is only a small player in the basketball sneaker game, with a market share dwarfed by competitors Adidas and Converse.
Jordan, in fact, is already off the board when Nike marketing head Rob Strasser (an admirably restrained Jason Bateman) meets to discuss potential targets from the ‘84 draft to pursue. The company plans to divest among at least three picks, but signing Jordan would eat their entire budget — something that Zen-spouting Nike CEO Phil Knight (played by director Affleck) hasn’t approved.
Making matters even more complicated is the fact that Jordan is a known Adidas fan who won’t even meet with Nike. Inspired by colleague Howard White (Chris Tucker), Vaccaro goes around Jordan’s prickly agent David Falk (Chris Messina) to meet with the superstar’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James Jordan (Julius Tennon).
Thanks to a streamlined narrative from Alex Convery and rat-a-tat direction from Affleck, Air rattles off the general events surrounding the Jordan acquisition with maximum efficiency; even those uninterested in basketball or footwear should find this stuff compelling.
Damon’s committed performance carries the movie, but one of Air’s only faults is that it never really gets inside his character in the way Moneyball dug into Billy Beane.
One of Air’s best scenes is a quiet moment of introspection when Bateman’s Strasser tells Vaccaro about his daughter, and Damon’s character realizes how much he has bet on his Jordan gamble and what it might cost for those around him. But moments are subtly underplayed and never form a tangible character arc.
It’s also an odd decision to never feature Michael Jordan in this movie about the genesis of the sneaker that bears his name. The filmmakers might have been correct to assess that no actor could have filled Jordan’s larger-than-life shoes, but they’ve robbed the movie of what could have been its emotional center.
Still, Air is a more-than-compelling depiction of a key event in 1980s consumer pop culture, and a step above and beyond what a documentary covering the same subject might have delivered thanks to some flavorful performances and a grounded presentation. This one’s a real crowd-pleaser and a refreshingly understated experience at the cinema amidst a seas of special effects blockbusters.
Bonus: terrific production design that includes a wonderful montage of 80s stock footage over the opening credits that nicely sets the stage for the film that follows (and seamlessly blends into the world of the film). A soundtrack full of nostalgic 80s hits (by Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, REO Speedwagon, and many more) adds to the appeal.