The Plot: Oregon, 1984. Sports company Nike is trailing well behind its rivals with a 17% share of the market. The company needs a breakthrough, something that will come to define it for this generation and those yet to come. Talent spotter Sonny (Matt Damon) tours the High School basketball leagues looking for that one player that has the potential to become truly great. He zeroes in on Michael Jordan, a rookie who has yet to play professional basketball. Sonny hits upon the idea of creating a shoe line just for Jordan. However, this means using up the company’s budget and convincing hesitant CEO Phil (Ben Affleck) to sign a contract with Jordan. An even bigger challenge awaits in convincing Michael’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis), who has offers circling from rival companies…
The Verdict: In sports history, Nike’s Air Jordan product line became more than just a fashion statement, an accessible shoe for young men or a flavour of the month that passed into history. It became an iconic blend of product and personality, breaking the rules of both business and basketball in the process and consequently shooting Nike up the charts. Think it’s just an American story? Look around the sports shops in Dublin and you’ll see the famous silhouette of Michael Jordan reaching for the sky nearly four decades after the events depicted in Ben Affleck’s new film Air. Now, that’s longevity in action. Following on from the insightful 2020 documentary One Man And His Shoes (worth tracking down online), Air tracks the development of the shoe over the ticking clock of a crucial business deal when Nike decided to go for broke and bet it on one player before he became famous.
Alex Convery’s script is unusually structured as a reverse underdog story. Jordan isn’t the underdog here. In fact, Convery and Affleck made a conscious choice to keep Jordan in the background of the film and not include an insert-stunt-cameo-here-moment. Nike is the underdog, scrabbling away at percentages while following the rules of the business and keeping its own mission statement more in theory than in fact. This is where Sonny Vaccaro comes in, defying his boss with his maverick approach to talent scouting, driving hard bargains and not taking no for an answer. Convery delivers all this with the kind of dialogue authenticity of an Aaron Sorkin production, giving these corporate characters a lived-in quality and a lively sense of humour too. Chris Messina’s foul-mouthed agent is just the kind of slimy character one might encounter in this cut-throat business where if you’re not first, you’re last.
Both Affleck and his old buddy Matt Damon knew they were on to a good thing with this screenplay, having previously sat on the Hollywood Blacklist of best unproduced scripts. It’s a clear front runner from the first act and then gets progressively better as it moves up the court before closing in for a decisive slam dunk. The path to that is littered with many obstacles though, from competitors to shrewd parents. Jordan himself requested that Viola Davis play his mother and being the great actor that she is, she commands the screen doing wonders with just a handful of scenes. Crucially, a key conversation is held over a telephone call between Davis and Damon, with the two actors going back and forth as the tension mounts over the potential closing of a deal. It’s not just about the acting, it’s about the editing too to mould this into a dramatic resolution worthy of the story.
As a director whose focus on the story being king remains consistent, Affleck has a keen eye for working closely with his actors and making sure that everyone is on track and shooting straight. The infamous Gigli seems like a long, long time ago. The boy has done good. Packed with punchy dialogue, great performances and a rule-breaking winning streak to get behind, Air reaches for the sky and then lands safely and firmly on its feet in those iconic shoes.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Reaches for the sky
Air (USA / 15A / 112 mins)
In short: Reaches for the sky
Directed by Ben Affleck. Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker.