Air Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ben Affleck
Stars: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Matthew Maher, Julius Tennon, Marlon Wayans, Jay Mohr, Barbara Sukowa, Asante Deshon, Damian Delano Young, Joel Gretsch.
In 1984 struggling sportswear company Nike changed the sneaker game and the industry with its risky and unprecedented decision to design a shoe brand entirely around a single player – in this case the highly regarded 18-year-old rookie Michael Jordan, who as history records went on to become recognised as one of the greatest athletes and sporting heroes of the twentieth century.
In 1984 Nike was a struggling sportswear company whose sneakers were considered a distant third in terms of market share, well behind Converse and Adidas. But a dedicated marketing manager with Nike managed to pull off one of the greatest coups in the sporting world when he convinced Michael Jordan to sign with the company with a groundbreaking deal giving him a share of the profit from every Air Jordan shoe sold. This deal was a game changer in terms of rewarding athletes through lucrative brand endorsements.
While Nike CEO Phil Knight (played by Ben Affleck) wanted to use his limited budget to attract three players to the company, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the head of Nike’s underperforming basketball division, convinced him to risk it all on Jordan. Vaccaro broke most of the rules of the industry by directly approaching Jordan’s protective mother Deloris (Viola Davis), who called the shots in the family, in an attempt to convince her that Nike was the best place for Michael. Even though Nike had less resources than the other companies that were courting him.
The story of the creation of an iconic shoe brand hardly sounds like the stuff of riveting cinema, but director Affleck turns the material into a crowd-pleasing underdog story that will appeal even to audiences who are not particularly interested in sports. Air has been written by first time feature writer Alex Convery and is full of zippy, punchy dialogue delivered by a stellar ensemble cast who bring a raft of eccentric and colourful characters to life. This is Affleck’s first foray behind the camera since 2017’s disappointing crime thriller Live By Night, but, unlike his previous films which were gritty crime dramas, here he brings a lighter touch to the material.
As well as directing the film, Affleck also brings an intense quality to his performance as Knight. Damon has an affable and energetic presence as the driven but likeable Sonny. Damon and Affleck have been friends for over two decades and they have developed a wonderful easy-going rapport that comes to the fore during their shared scenes.
Jason Bateman brings a frustrated quality to his performance as marketing man Rob Strasser who was eventually convinced to support Vaccaro’s idea. Chris Messina is great as David Falk, Jordan’s foul-mouthed NBA agent who has a love/hate relationship with Sonny. In his first film role since Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2016 motormouthed comic Chris Tucker essentially plays it straight as Howard White, one of Nike’s executives and Vice-Presidents. Matthew Maher brings a quiet assurance to his role as Peter Moore, the soft-spoken shoe designer tucked away in the basement who designs the shoe to Sonny’s specifications. And Davis brings strength and gravitas to her role as Deloris. Apparently, it was Jordan himself who requested that she play the role of his mother.
Although Jordan is a key figure in the story we rarely see him in the film – he is a peripheral figure here and is mainly seen through archival footage. He appears briefly in a couple of scenes where he is played by Damian Delano Young, but is mostly seen from behind or at the edge of the frame.
Affleck superbly captures the era through plenty of needle drops of 80s hits from the likes of Dire Straits, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and REO Speedwagon, which add to the nostalgic feel of the material. Francois Audouy’s superb production design for the interior of the Nike headquarters also captures the era through the clunky computer monitors on the desks, landlines, and even the old-fashioned office furniture and paraphernalia like a guillotine for cutting paper. The opening credit sequence includes a wonderfully edited montage from William Goldenberg that gives us a quick glimpse of the period through many of its familiar touchstones. And Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight, etc) bathes the film in nostalgic hues.
Air is an entertaining crowd-pleasing film that makes for a fine companion piece to Cameron Crowe’s slick Jerry Maguire.