When Air was first announced, and the hype around Ben Affleck directing his longtime friend Matt Damon died down, everyone thought it was going to be a film on Nike’s origin and legacy. Then began chatter of a Phil Knight biopic. Wait, could it be a Michael Jordan basketball memoir?
But Air is not about a company, person or sport; it’s about a shoe — a single custom-made sneaker in fact — that would change the history of footwear and sports marketing forever.
Affleck’s fifth feature is radically different in genre from his earlier outings as filmmaker (The Town, Argo, Gone Baby Gone), but you get the same sense of deft touch and assuredness just a few minutes into the narrative — a cast populated with the fraternity’s finest certainly helps — which takes an old-fashioned, well-worn path towards its climax.
At the centre of it is Matt Damon, who is flawless as Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball scout/sports executive who made the impossible happen; get a then-rookie Michael Jordan in 1984 to sign for Nike in an era dominated by Converse and Adidas.
But there are several hoops to jump through before that. Nike’s co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) is aghast at the idea of blowing the basketball division’s entire budget — and then some — on a single unproven player. Jordan’s protective mother Deloris (Viola Davis) and his fast-talking agent (a scene-stealing Chris Messina) both need suitable wooing to be convinced of this collaboration before Jordan himself comes into the picture, and nobody quite knows if Nike’s eccentric designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) has it him to produce the greatest shoe prototype ever: the very first Air Jordan.
There’s a lot of fast-talk, genial banter, dry wit and office humour as all these sub-plots converge smoothly towards its eventual will-he won’t-he conclusion, in a dialogue-laden smorgasbord that always keeps you riveted. There is, surprisingly, very little footage of basketball being played — save for some archival videos of the real Michael Jordan in action — and most of Air finds itself in the claustrophobic confines of conference rooms, meeting halls and office cubicles.
The folklore of Air Jordan is too well-documented (even amongst non-sneakerheads) for there to be any real surprises along the way; but there’s where this terrific group of actors come into play as they jostle their way into the highlight reels. Affleck smashes it as the showboating, Porsche-driving, barefoot-walking arrogant Knight, in delightful control of his powers; but he’s also an excellent director who prefers to take the backseat here and let his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, Damon gives us yet another glimpse into his astonishing ability to make every character relatable — all of us know a Sonny at our workplace — and having gained weight for the role, delivers a robust performance carrying the weight of the script on his dawdling, thickset shoulders.
Air is at its most enjoyable (and funny) during Sonny and Knight’s interactions; it’s impossible not to imagine the actors behind the characters, best friends in real life, having a blast working on the sets together. The likes of Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans and Chris Messina bring some potent and amusing deadpan to the party, but it is Viola Davis who towers over them all.
In one of her most subtle yet arresting roles, she surrounds herself with an inexplicable air of moral wisdom; Affleck wisely films her in several close-ups that add some much-needed emotional heft to a storyline that sometimes, oddly, keeps the stakes a bit too low-key. Indeed, the film’s best scene unfolds in an intense back-and-forth between Damon and Davis — that brings into focus the racial subtext to Nike and Jordan’s groundbreaking contract — and it’s a joy to watch these two masters of their craft go at it.
The decision to not show Jordan’s face throughout the film (Damian Young in a cameo) is initially disconcerting, but we make peace with it as Air progresses; on that note, there is no prior knowledge of basketball or sports conglomerates needed to enjoy the film, but a couple of Easter eggs thrown into the mix should delight fans of the sport.
40 years on, it’s tough to determine who gained more from the Air Jordan deal — both Nike and Michael Jordan went on to earn millions and set up global empires in their own rights — but suffice it to say that Affleck’s charming retelling of the saga is akin to MJ’s legendary career; an absolute slam dunk.
Air is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video