The year is 1984. Nike is far behind rivals Adidas and Converse in the shoe market. Sonny Vaccaro, a savant who is tasked with identifying the best players to go after for Nike’s dying basketball division, becomes obsessed with the idea that signing Chicago Bulls draft pick Michael Jordan is the move that will save the company. Air is the story of how he lured Jordan away from frontrunner Adidas, changing basketball, shoes and sports endorsements in the process.
The story being told in Air (107 minutes, minus the end credits) isn’t twisty or surprising. Vaccaro isn’t the deepest of characters and his mission, while passionate, was mostly motivated by ego and money. On paper, this doesn’t sound particularly compelling; it’s a lot of middle-aged guys talking about how talented a young athlete is, as they compete to get him to advertise their product. It is a somewhat simplistic look at why Sonny Vaccaro is a legend in basketball circles and how Nike became so massively successful, as well as how the Jordan family’s business acumen permanently altered the kinds of deals athletes are offered. Yet director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery have done something pretty remarkable here: they have made this story consistently entertaining.
The number one key to making this work so well is the screenplay. This is Convery’s first credit. That is quite surprising when you hear how assured the writing is. The dialogue is clever and witty, the pacing is tight and the characters are always made more important than the SIGNIFICANCE of what they are doing. The movie knows exactly how hard to hit that point, gives credit to the right people and never takes itself too seriously. It is legitimately funny in parts and never plays at pretending to be tense.
Convery’s screenplay is really good, but Affleck, who has certainly shown himself to be a very skilled director in the past, definitely deserves some praise as well. The pacing and comedic timing of the performances are partially due to him. Additionally, he does a great job of knowing when to let a scene breathe and when a point has been made sufficiently enough to move on. There is a scene early on where Vaccaro watches Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 NCCA championship game on repeat, gradually recognizing this as his proof that Jordan is the guy. Though it sounds simple, the editing choices and movement of the actor are perfect for getting across the enormity of this realization in this moment for this man. It was then that it became clear to me that Ben Affleck knew precisely how to handle this material.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the performances. The casting here is spot-on, snagging actors who can portray the essence of these people effortlessly, without much explanation. Matt Damon is excellent as Vaccaro, a smart, driven, confident man, who knows he is the most knowledgeable person in the room and is frustrated when other people don’t treat him as such. Damon is so good at establishing this guy that it wasn’t until Air was over that it occurred to me that we don’t learn anything about him outside of his job.
Damon has great chemistry with Jason Bateman, who is his usual sarcastic smartass as the head of marketing. He also has some good exchanges with Affleck, who plays Nike head Phil Knight. Initially, it just seemed like he was playing Knight as a regular Ben Affleck character. By the end, Knight’s personality quirks shine through enough to make for a solid performance.
The other major role belongs to the incredible Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris. She doesn’t play her with histrionics or as a force of nature; she is an intelligent woman who cares about her son, knows what he is worth and is not going to be manipulated by a bunch of salesmen. It makes sense that Vaccaro’s down-to-earth honesty would get her attention. Davis is a very powerful performer and it is difficult to imagine anyone else doing as much with a calm stare as she does.
Air is something deceptively different. It is a sports movie that isn’t really about sports. It covers a major event in its field, but does not exaggerate its impact. It makes a series of business meetings and phone conversations engaging and easy to watch. If it hadn’t already been proven, this absolutely does it: Ben Affleck is one heck of a director.
4 out of 5
Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro
Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight
Chris Tucker as Howard White
Chris Messina as David Falk
Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Alex Convery