The Air Jordan line is arguably the most successful sneaker line in athletic wear history. Thirty-seven models strong, in an innumerable number of colorways, it is mainly responsible for the current existence of today’s extremely lucrative sneaker industry. Therefore, it might be surprising to know that the Nike/Michael Jordan partnership almost did not happen. The movie Air takes audiences back to 1985 to examine the characters and circumstances responsible for making this deal possible.
Specific challenges exist when bringing a story to the big screen where the outcome is widely known. With Air, it is probably safe to say that most people watching the movie know what happens between Michael Jordan and Nike, so how do filmmakers go about keeping audiences engaged?
Director and star Ben Affleck proves he is more than up for the challenge. The film starts with a montage that opens a time capsule of 1980s images, firmly establishing the era when the events in Air occur. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is introduced in a scene making bets, conveying that only his willingness to take risks would make the Jordan deal possible. After establishing those key elements, Affleck keeps an up-tempo yet controlled pace throughout the film.
Back in 1984, Nike was already a multibillion-dollar company. Most of their business came from running shoes at the time; their basketball division, on the other hand, was struggling. Vaccaro is tasked with finding the next star signee to rescue the basketball business. He has a feeling the player is NBA rookie Michael Jordan. However, he faces the challenge of convincing his coworkers, Jordan, and Jordan’s family that the Chicago Bulls draftee should be a Nike athlete.
The cast and crew of Air are superb here. Affleck flexes his directorial prowess, controlling pace and showcasing clever camera work. He uses wide shots showcasing different venues, allowing viewers to take in the setting. Yet he switches to intimate close-ups when actors take center stage, allowing them to display their talents. He uses Alex Convery’s wickedly smart script to full effect, allowing it to take full control. The production design courtesy of Francois Audouy is equally impressive. Every 80s detail is accounted for, from grocery items to the sneakers on display in the Nike offices.
Damon’s capture Vaccaro’s monomaniacal confidence while sprinkling in shades of doubt and potential remorse, It’s astounding. Affleck brings Nike CEO Phil Knight to life, portraying him as a man conflicted by his business duties and entrepreneurial spirit. Chris Tucker stars in his first movie in almost 7 years, dazzling as Nike executive Howard White. Jason Bateman plays Rob Strasser, always ready to respond with a logical quip but whose heart lies very much in doing the impossible. Chris Messina is side-splittingly funny as super-agent David Falk. He makes it difficult for audiences to catch their breath.
Viola Davis plays the Jordan family matriarch and once again proves she is one of the best performers to ever grace the screen. With limited screen time, Davis takes control of every scene. She plays Deloris Jordan with a subdued ferocity, carefully observing who has her son’s best interest at heart. She knows when to strike in order to establish the foundation of his legacy. Michael Jordan himself demanded that his mother be played by Viola Davis, and the actor in turn delivers a commanding performance.
Air stands out as an early Best Picture nominee. It is a labor of love and respect towards one of the greatest athletes of all time. It is particularly effective that the story does not focus on his playing career. Instead, this is about how his sneaker career got started. Most people will have no idea what it means to possess the qualities that made Michael Jordan, well, Michael Jordan. However, one can live vicariously through his sneakers, lace them up, and for a brief instant truly feel “like Mike”.
Air pays homage to the man and 20 years after playing his final basketball game, the myth and the legend. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, the constant worshipping of Michael Jordan and Nike may come across as indulgent. Yet in Affleck’s hands and with his crew’s execution, Air is joyously entertaining, inspirational, and a must-watch for all audiences.