Who knew the story of a marketing meeting between Nike employees and a promising new basketball player would make for such captivating entertainment?
Alas the 1980s roars back to the big screen with Air, a new fact-based retelling of Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro and his journey of signing Michael Jordan onto the Air Jordan line. Even with a very clear conclusion that most people know about (particularly given they are among the highest-selling shoes of all time), Air is able to frame the commercial agreement as an uplifting and character-driven comedy with sharp performances.
Sonny (Matt Damon) is a talent scout for Nike who is aiming to find the right basketballer to sponsor from the brand. He seems to be missing the mark and not getting his preferences. That is until he sees a video of Jordan on the court and is convinced that he is the silver bullet that the brand needs to succeed, knowing that he will be the greatest basketballer of all time. From there he needs the entire $250,000 budget to win over Jordan from Adidas, and that’s just the start of the battle.
Writer Alex Convery does a good job of balancing the information around the NBA and also the more human elements of the story, making the audience, particularly invested in how Nike (here the underdog) is expected to win over the star athlete. Characters are interesting and vibrant, excellently played by each performer.
Damon reconnects with his collaborator Ben Affleck, who directs, produces, and also stars in the film as Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. Despite his limited time on screen, he captures each scene vividly. Support from Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Tucker, and Chris Messina adds to the comedy mix, but it’s Viola Davis who truly shines as Deloris Jordan, commanding the screen with her impassioned speeches and natural motherly instinct.
During the inception of Air, there’s no doubt the issue of Jordan’s role in the story would arise. But Affleck decides to not show Jordan’s face so as to not draw comparisons in the first place. One such tense scene, the one involving the pitch to Jordan himself, works despite not showing the star himself.
Indeed Air is helmed by its lesser-known real life characters and the actions that were taken to launch a marketing collaboration the world had never seen before and likely will not see again. Moreover it’s the ability of the film to make notes on adversity from this true story that allows it to fly.