There’s a debate halfway through Ben Affleck’s Air about whether a certain sneaker prototype, designed around a rookie named Michael Jordan, should prioritize form or function. Comparably, films wrestle with a similar compromise between style and substance, with a select few efforts obtaining an equilibrium between the two. While the crew at Nike decided to emphasize the former, Affleck’s cinematic rendition of those seminal events refuses to make any such concession. Using its “True Story” form not as a crutch, but as a platform. A court it playfully and observantly dribbles its way through on route to a three-point swish. Though this story’s conclusion is universally known, the journey it takes to get there is made equal parts riveting and gratifying— rendering it that much more powerful and resonant. Provoking many into a greater appreciation of a moment already so well revered.
Its chronicling of the men who signed Michael Jordan to Nike against all odds, creating the sneaker that forever changed the sportswear industry, bustles with a great textural sense of time and place. Immersing itself in its nostalgic 80s setting with a natural flair, Air wonderfully charts the series of small victories that meticulously add up to a massive one. Capturing, in vivid detail, the overwhelming emotions and stakes which underpin each revelation, calculation, and fated decision that ultimately transform risk into reward. Cathartically tapping into the frustrations and doubts that come with being on the edge of greatness, and the struggles with mustering the energy and courage to take that final plunge. Though Air relies on the “True Story” formula intermittently, especially in its painfully obvious musical cues (Mawkishly concluding with “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen), its human touch never fails to shine through— taking full advantage of its retrospective lens.
The year is 1984 and Nike’s basketball division is on the verge of being shuttered. With only 17% of the market share, the floundering business is well behind competitors like Converse and the German titan, Adidas (whose past affiliation with the Nazi party is hilariously mocked by the Nike Team). Salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), struggles to sign rookies that will push the company’s shoe line to the next level, as the more coveted members of the NBA draft class refuse to sign with Nike. Constrained by a shoestring budget spread over multiple minor athletes, Vaccaro instead hedges his reputation, career, and the entire allotment on one player— Michael Jordan. He goes to great lengths to not only convince Nike’s CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) but the Jordan family as well, especially its resolute matriarch (Viola Davis),. Butting heads with competitors, allies, and scummy agents along the way.
While the plot may read like a glorified advertisement for Nike, it’s a pitch that is delivered with panache and authenticity. Affleck’s economical style works wonders, imbuing this dramatization with a palpable sense of naturalism that utterly nails the tone and atmosphere of its period, with more exaggerated depictions being tempered by its ability to earn its emotional arcs. Emboldened by Robert Richardson’s grainy, handheld cinematography the eighties Air conjures is at once wholly inviting and lived in. The neon glow of archaic gadgetry and the warm palette of the office aesthetic cement a perfect stage for Vaccaro’s heartbreaks and triumphs.
The arching camerawork, littered with confident tracking shots rachet up the tension beautifully, never overstaying their welcome, often transforming into sequences that deafen with silence and brace with stillness. Lingering on the key moments, caught in time, where Vacarro and his jolly band begin to sway and convince the Jordans of their vision (or, perhaps more accurately, when Mrs. Jordan convinces them of her’s).
The risk-reward dilemma is captured with a rare sense of catharsis, resulting in moments that are as memorable as they are stirring. Air soars to gratifying heights like Jordan himself, especially in scenes where the design of the sneaker is debated and in a pivotal final pitch that is rousing, to say the least.
While Affleck’s direction, emblematic of his Oscar-winning work in Argo (another “True Story”), and Alex Convery’s witty, satisfying screenplay are key ingredients in the film’s winning formula, they are given force by the film’s genuine, charismatic performances. Damon’s natural charisma and Jason Bateman’s wry conjecture brilliantly bounce off each other, with each contrapuntal exchange boldly realized, reverberating with both heart and humour. Chris Tucker, as George Raveling, is another comic highlight, only surpassed by Matthew Maher’s wonderfully weird Peter Moore, who comes up with the Air Jordan’s iconic design. Yet, Viola Davis’s portrayal of Delores Jordan is the real MVP. Her innate, unwavering confidence grounds the film with sincerity, confronting the greed that often neglects the humans at the center of such dealings.
While the film omits certain details that would, potentially, blunt the impact of its underdog, all-American story— such as Vaccaro’s later stint with the enemy, Adidas (where he orchestrated a deal with another Basketball legend, Kobe Bryant)—Air isn’t interested in cold hard facts but in how stories like the Air Jordan deal, though grounded in capitalism, can tap into the very soul of a nation. On that point, it hits nothing but net.
– Prabhjot Bains