‘Air’ is a slam dunk with an all-star cast


Courtesy of Phyllis Mercurio

By Rumsha Siddiqui, Kasteel Well Bureau Chief

In a nearly sold-out theater at AMC Boston Common, cinemagoers wearing Air Jordans awaited the premiere of “Air,” a dramedy starring Boston’s poster children: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. There was a strong sense of community as the theater erupted with laughter and witnessed arguably the best release of 2023 thus far.

In Amazon Studios’ latest sports drama, director Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery illustrate Nike’s struggles while attempting a game-changing collaboration between Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s 1984 lackluster basketball division.

Affleck treats “Air” as a love letter to the 1980s, beginning with a montage of clips from “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Ghostbusters” along with pictures of President Ronald Reagan and the cartoon cat Garfield, all while “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits plays. It’s an energetic kickoff to the story about Nike’s pursuit of Jordan. 

At the time, Nike CEO Phil Knight, played by Affleck, was adamant about choosing a few late NBA draft picks to sign a shoe deal, rather than splurging on one early pick. Nike knew they were the underdogs—Adidas and Converse were leading in the basketball shoe market while Nike was known for running shoes. Jordan intended to sign with Adidas, as he was never interested in Nike.

Convincing Knight and Jordan took a huge gamble from talent scout Sonny Vaccaro, who was played by Damon. He had his heart set on offering Jordan a revolutionary deal to promote the new Air Jordan sneaker entirely designed for him. The film illustrates how Sonny put his career on the line to greenlight a $250,000-per-year shoe deal that ultimately changed Nike’s trajectory.

“Air” is a story for which the audience already knows the outcome, and as a result, it lacks suspense. But the drama doesn’t come from whether the deal happens or not, but how it happens. We see the hurdles Sonny had to face to get Nike to sign off on a large offer to Jordan, while simultaneously convincing Jordan to accept Nike’s offer—of course, viewers knew that his bet would pay off. However, Damon’s performance is captivating, and watching all that went into establishing Air Jordan makes a seemingly mundane tale exhilarating, especially when Jordan finally accepts the deal with Nike. 

Pulling off a movie about corporate legalities, advertising executives, and their CEO is not an easy feat because, let’s be real, that sounds boring. It is especially difficult when it’s a movie about Jordan that never actually shows the man himself. Throughout “Air,” Jordan’s face is never shown and he only utters a few lines—Affleck justified this move on an episode of the Inside Total Film podcast.

“We made as much a sort of fable as anything else, because it’s really about a character who never appears in the movie, in Michael Jordan,” Affleck said. “I felt that he’s just too iconic and recognizable and special, where you immediately would know the whole thing was a lie if I tried to tell you somebody else was Michael Jordan.”

Since Jordan’s character is minimized, his mother Deloris—played by Viola Davis—does most of the speaking on his behalf, and she is incredible and charismatic. Deloris knows the worth of her son’s talent, and she was always aware that he would go on to become the greatest basketball player of all time—so when it came time to negotiate a shoe deal, she was Jordan’s spokeswoman. Sonny’s attempts at winning Deloris over become the centerpiece of the film.

Other notable performances include Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser, then-director of marketing, Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent David Falk, and Chris Tucker as Howard White, a Nike executive.

The film isn’t a typical sports movie. It appeals to everyone, not just those interested in basketball. Instead of focusing on the sport, it focuses on the stories of those involved in pulling off a great shoe deal. The human element of “Air” with likable characters makes for fantastic storytelling. It’s fun and entertaining with very few dull moments, and good writing goes a long way along with expertly crafted one-liners and banter that film critic Sean Burns described as an “Aaron Sorkin script without the misogyny.”

Although the movie focuses almost entirely on landing the deal, it would have been interesting to delve into the cultural influence of Air Jordan, not just in the sports world, but with regard to fashion, hip-hop, and street culture.

“Air” is fast-paced and quick-witted while featuring an all-star cast, and despite no on-the-court action, it is the ultimate underdog sports movie with feel-good themes. Its subject matter, writing, directing, and performances make “Air” the ’96 Bulls of corporate sports shoe-signing dramas.