“Air” bristles with the infectious energy of the man at its center: Sonny Vaccaro, who’s hustling to make the deal of a lifetime.
Of course, we know from the start that the former Nike executive succeeded: Michael Jordan became a superstar and arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the game. And the Air Jordan, the shoe that gives the film its title, became the best-known and most-coveted sneaker of all time.
So how do you tell a story to which we already know the outcome? That’s where the deceptive brilliance of Ben Affleck’s directing lies. His fifth feature is much in the same vein as the previous movies he’s helmed: “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” “Argo” (which earned him a best-picture Oscar) and “Live By Night.” He makes the kind of solid, mid-budget movies for grown-ups that are far too rare these days. Affleck emphasizes strong writing, veteran performers and venerable behind-the-scenes craftspeople. His choice in cinematographer, longtime Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson, is a prime example.
With “Air,” it all comes together in an enormously entertaining package—one that’s old-fashioned but also alive and crowd-pleasing. Working from a sharp and snappy script by Alex Convery, Affleck tells the story of how Nike nabbed Jordan by creating a shoe that wasn’t just for him but of him—the representation of his soon-to-be iconic persona in a form that made us feel as if we, too, could reach such heights. This probably makes “Air” sound like a two-hour sneaker commercial. It is not. If you love movies about process, about people who are good at their jobs, then you’ll find yourself enthralled by the film’s many moments inside offices, conference rooms, and production labs.
The interactions within those mundane spaces make “Air” such a joy, starting with the reteaming of Affleck and Matt Damon. It’s a blast watching these longtime best friends, co-stars, and co-writers playing off each other again, provoking and cajoling, more than a quarter century after “Good Will Hunting.” Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike recruiting expert who recognized the young North Carolina guard as a once-in-a-generation talent and pursued him relentlessly to keep him from Converse and Adidas cooler brands. Affleck is Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight, an intriguing mix of Zen calm and corporate arrogance. He walks around the office barefoot, yet he drives a Porsche he insists is not purple but rather grape in hue. Vaccaro, as his friend and colleague from the company’s earliest days, is the only one who can speak truth to power, and the affection and friction of that camaraderie shine through.
The year is 1984 (boy, is it ever—more on that in a minute), and Nike’s basketball division is an afterthought within the Oregon-based running shoe company. Nike is also an also-ran among its competitors. Vaccaro, a doughy, middle-aged bulldog in various puddy-colored Members Only jackets (the on-point work of costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones), knows Jordan can change all that, and most “Air” consists of him convincing everyone around him of that notion. That includes director of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman, whose mastery of dry, rat-a-tat banter is the perfect fit for this material); player-turned-executive Howard White (an amusingly fast-talking Chris Tucker); Jordan’s swaggering agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, who nearly steals the whole movie with one hilariously profane telephone tirade); and finally, Jordan’s proud and protective mother, Deloris (Viola Davis, whose arrival provides the film with a new level of weight and wisdom). Character actor Matthew Maher, who always brings an intriguing presence to whatever film he’s in, stands out as Nike’s idiosyncratic shoe design guru, Peter Moore.
“Air” is a timeless underdog story of grit, dreams, and moxie. In that spirit, Vaccaro delivers a killer monologue at a crucial moment in hopes of sealing the deal with Jordan (whom Affleck shrewdly never shows us full-on—he remains an elusive idea, as he should be, but an intoxicating bit of crosscutting reveals the legacy he’ll leave over time). Still, Affleck very much hammers home the fact that we are in the mid-1980s. Sometimes, the evocation of this period comes in subtle and amusing ways, as in a throwaway joke about Kurt Rambis that made me chuckle. (You don’t have to know anything about basketball in general or this era in particular to enjoy the film, but there are many extra pleasures if you do.) More often, though, Affleck aims to create nostalgia with nearly wall-to-wall needle drops and overbearing pop culture references. As if the lengthy opening montage consisting of Cabbage Patch Kids, Hulk Hogan, the “Where’s the Beef?” ad, President Reagan, Princess Diana, and more weren’t enough, he randomly throws in a Rubik’s Cube or a stack of Trivial Pursuit cards as a transitional device. And the soundtrack of ‘80s hits is such a constant it becomes distracting, from the Violent Femmes and Dire Straits to Cyndi Lauper and Chaka Khan to a truly baffling use of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” as Knight is simply pulling into the Nike parking lot.
Still, this is a minor quibble about a movie that, for the most part, is as smooth and reliable as one of Jordan’s buzzer-beating, fadeaway jumpers.
Now playing in theaters.