“Air” Review: Just See It

Dir. Ben Affleck— 4 Stars


While Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are forever recognized as a dynamic Boston duo for their 1997 Oscar-winning film “Good Will Hunting,” their newest picture “Air” — a story of Michael Jordan’s 1984 partnership with Nike — evokes similar charm from opening to closing credits.

The film centers on Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a bold sports marketing executive looking for a star for Nike’s basketball division. Vaccaro is assigned this crucial task by Nike’s CEO and co-founder Phil Knight, played by the film’s director Affleck. The two find themselves arguing over budget cuts, Nike’s changing culture, and the best strategy to secure an elite athlete for the brand.

To the audience’s surprise, Jordan was initially unamused by Nike’s shoes and wanted to sign with Converse or Adidas, creating a daunting challenge for Vaccaro. The film follows Vaccaro's subsequent bargaining with Jordan’s ruthless agent David Falk (Chris Messina), his mother Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), and Nike’s head marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Batemen). When everyone else was convinced that Jordan would never be a Nike athlete, Vaccaro’s nearly clairvoyant desire to sign him ultimately took the corporation to new heights.

Despite Affleck’s experience directing dramas — such as “The Town,” “Live by Night,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and Oscars Best Picture winning “Argo” — he successfully transitioned into the comedic and fast-paced style needed for “Air.” Bringing in Bateman’s comedic talents, Marlon Wayans as iconic coach George Raveling, and comedic legend Chris Tucker as Nike exec Howard “H” White, Affleck assembled a cast that supports the simultaneously inspiring and hilarious tone of the Jordan origin story.


Today, Nike is very much a global brand, but “Air” provides a spirited and novel look into its Portland origins. The film is organized by Nike’s guiding principles, which appear on screen at every turning point and lean into the nostalgia of the ’80s. The audience already knows that Jordan becomes one of the most famous athletes of all time, but to see the Nike team doubt his abilities creates comedy and tension that push the film forward.

In the film, Vaccaro and the Nike marketing team have to choose athletes from the ’84 draft class that they hope to sign, and their determining legendary players like Charles Barkley and John Stockton as irrelevant is downright comedic. Between scenes, the film uses ’80s hits from Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and Cyndi Lauper, taking viewers back to the good ol’ days. There are times where the song choices feel gratuitous for its exorbitant budget, but the music is often complemented by the vintage technology, costumes, and set designs that create an unblemished ’80s feel.

What makes “Air” move past its good qualities into a future classic sports film is the performance of Viola Davis as Dolores Jordan. From the moment Dolores Jordan meets Vaccaro to the final phone call where they seal the deal, Davis’s stellar abilities — as betrayed by her EGOT status — always leads to a commanding and moving performance. Michael Jordan’s only rule for the film was that Davis play his mother, and he made an outstanding choice that uplifts not only the marketability of the film, but its quality. While the film is witty and feel good, Davis’s abilities take the film to another level.

Jordan’s deal with Nike revolutionized sports endorsement models because of Dolores’s insistence that he receive a percentage of all revenue for any Jordan shoe. Dolores beautifully describes the ethos of the film in her final monologue, in which she says, “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps in it.”

The film relies heavily, of course, on the iconography of Jordan, but makes the clever artistic choice to not show his face. Not only does the mystery keep audiences on the edge of their seats waiting to see Jordan, but allows them to stay engaged in the story. There can only be one Jordan, and it would be impossible to feel that sense of immersion with an actor in his place.

The infamous Air Jordan 1, created by Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) has transformed the world of basketball and defined the sneaker culture of today’s world. “Air” brings together the people that turned Jordan into an American story of belief, perseverance, and most importantly, swag.

— Staff writer Marley Dias can be reached at