Two words when said aloud can define a generation of NBA basketball history and are forever symbiotically associated to the player who has inspired countless other’s by his play, his poise, his competitive motivation and tenacity on and off the court. Those 2 words are ‘Air Jordan’, and the player is none other than his airness Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player to ever lace up his signature shoes and step on a basketball court. 6-time NBA champion and 6-time NBA Finals MVP, 5-time MVP, 14 time all star and the list goes on and on.
Subsequently, these same 2 words can define a generation of fashion trends that has gone on to generate billions of dollars in revenue since stepping onto the court for his rookie season in 1984.
But Air written by Alex Convery and directed by writer-director-actor Ben Affleck in his 5th turn as director-actor doesn’t point the lens on the 6-foot 6-inch guard from North Carolina that hits buzzer beaters, played with extreme bouts of the flu, and soared through the air in slow motion, almost stopping time in the process. No, Michael Jordan doesn’t even show his face outside of archival footage of the greatness that he would become after getting drafted from the Chicago Bulls as the 3rd pick.
Instead, Air focuses its lens on a workplace drama at the headquarters of the Nike corporation in Beaverton, Oregon. The less Michael is seen walking alongside his parents and towering over the corporate executives at Nike, Adidas and Converse in the bidding war to sign Jordan the better off Air is. It would be a distraction to the the narrative that Affleck is so keenly locked in on – the politics of the office space and the chess match maneuvering it takes to land a contract of this magnitude.
As the audience, we already know the outcome of the story being told. It’s no spoiler but obviously Michael Jordan didn’t sign with Adidas or Converse in 1984. What Convery and Affleck do instead is center their film around the tense risk taking, the small details and frantic negotiations to court Michael away from the competition with a goose egg of a basketball division. Up to this point, Nike has made its legacy selling running sneakers, carving up sporting events like the Olympics. Leading the way to signing Michael is Sonny Vacarro (Matt Damon), Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Howard White (Chris Tucker), and Phil Knight (Ben Affleck).
All of whom play a significant role in the signing which happens to go through the two single most important people in Air, James Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis). I would argue the most important person in Air besides Deloris is Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) the architect in designing the Jordan 1 silhouette, the Air Jordan logo, and the Jumpman logo among other achievements. Without the prototype to showcase what Nike can offer in the emotional climax, none of this could have happened and another competing brand would have closed the deal with Deloris and James.
Throughout the modest runtime of 112 minutes which could have been trimmed to make for a more taut film, Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson, a frequent Tarentino and Scorsese collaborator, highlights closeups of Nike’s code of conduct that unofficially serve as the outline for where the narrative goes. Many of which like “your job isn’t done until the job is done” and “be a risk taker” echo Sonny’s determined temperament in chasing 1 player instead of splitting the budget among 3 players.
Taking place largely in the Nike headquarters, Affleck and Richardson build the most tension in the office environments from the buzzing energy where business gets done the most – in the cafeteria and in the bathroom. Working in an office I can attest to the numerous times of walking into the small kitchen area or on the open spaced floor and overhearing business being handled out loud. The office is a battlefield, one that requires skill and ambition to navigate. Knowing where this story ends up, it’s the give and take of compromising and deal making in the 11th hour that is sold easily as Sonny pleads his case with Phil, Rob and Deloris. Nights, holidays and weekends with a village of likeminded people to accomplish their goals of growing the basketball division.
Full of early 80’s nostalgia, Affleck wastes no time transporting us back to the era with a montage of highlights that sets the tone. Every frame is given self-indulgent capitalistic value with eye popping references and brands that will sure to have those of a certain age smile and nod at the memories. A tad heavy on the use however, the polished look and feel of the 80’s pops among the muted color palette. Added to those visual representations is a soundtrack pulled straight from a generic 80’s Spotify playlist. Predictable song choices but it gets the job done, Air is the type of film an older viewer will enjoy while the younger viewer will revel in the sneaker that pop culture still obsesses over.
Anytime Matt Damon and Ben Affleck work and collaborate together, the end result is always worth the journey they take us on. Whatever roles the two have in a film, they both are comfortable with one another, pushing to get the best interaction possible. Among the small but extremely talented cast and with the little amount of time she has on screen, Viola Davis commands the screen with her convictions, being the one person who believe her son is truly special and deserves treatment unlike any other player has gotten before. Yeah Magic, Bird and Erving are some of the most legendary players, but Michael is special – a generational talent that rarely comes around often.
Ultimately, Air blends an accurate account of office space theatrics in a highly competitive industry with some truly tense and dramatic moments that triumphantly dazzle and a funny bone that slices the tension with a knife. Affleck as a director has turned in some truly remarkable outings and Air is just another reminder of his talent behind the screen. I could use every basketball related pun to describe the crowdpleaser however I’ll only say this – with his fifth time in the directors chair, Affleck has sunk the game winner with another dub.
Screenplay By: Alex Convery
Directed By: Ben Affleck
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis
Edited By: William Goldenberg
Release Date: April 5, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 52 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%