The maxim goes, “The higher the risk, the higher the reward.”
In American capitalism, there are limits to how much risk a business, especially a publicly-traded one, is willing to take. After all, there are stockholders to pacify and executives bonuses to pay out. Very rarely does a company throw caution, and millions of dollars, to the wind on a hunch or gut instinct.
Then again, very rarely does someone like Michael Jordan come along.
A film centered around basketball’s greatest star is a massive but inevitable risk. Jordan is a global icon with few contemporaries in pop culture. While his closest contemporaries, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana, have biopics, Jordan exerts an extraordinary amount of control over his image that they couldn’t. A straightforward Jordan biopic likely required too much effort, even for the big-swinging Amazon Studios.
A more tolerable risk is the story of how Nike created the Air Jordan franchise. Air follows Sonny Vacarro (Matt Damon), Nike’s basketball guru, as he tries to sign the budding upstart version of Jordan to an endorsement deal. Although it seems inconceivable now, the Nike of 1984 is not the cultural force it is in 2023. Adidas and Converse devoured their lunch on the regular, and both had the prestige and cash to pull Jordan into their stable of stars. (Also, Jordan hated Nike.) Vacarro has several obstacles in front of him aside from them, cagey CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), Jordan’s cutthroat agent David Falk (Chris Messina), and Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) among them. However, Vaccaro has what Jordan’s other suitors don’t: a steadfast belief in the man Jordan is and will become, someone who will bring Nike along with him on his meteoric rise.
In the simplest terms, Air is about a sports deal negotiation, which isn’t the most exciting film subject on paper. Director Ben Affleck solves that by centering the narrative on the ideologies and principles rather than the individuals themselves. Screenwriter Alex Convery offers glimpses into the characters as conduits for the film’s thematic tensions. Vacarro’s gambling addiction and deep basketball expertise distinguish him from the disengaged, risk-averse Nike executives. Rob Strasser’s strained relationship with his daughter adds tangible stakes to Vacarro’s single-minded, potentially catastrophic gamble on Jordan. Knight’s zen-like atmosphere starkly contrasts his real concerns about the board of directors. As Vacarro explains in a desperate but glorious metatextual pitch to the Jordans, the characters on the screen don’t matter. They are entertaining but pale compared to the exploration of corporate stagnancy, the proven past versus the unknown future, and risk and reward.
Even Michael Jordan becomes an avatar for Air’s thematic tensions. While we never see his face, his presence looms. Convery and Affleck convey both the improbability and the inevitability of Jordan’s legacy. They toy with the cognitive dissonance of Knight’s initial refusal to spend $250,000 to secure Jordan, with us knowing he’s worth infinitely more. (Affleck doesn’t quite wink at us, but he knows we understand the inherent absurdity.) The film also sincerely celebrates its faceless future legend without falling into hagiography. You feel the respect as Vacarro explains his uniqueness to Strasser, and through his Hail Mary pitch directly to Jordan’s face. Vacarro’s passionate appeal – “a shoe is just a shoe until you step into it” – powers the final negotiation, with Deloris securing the contract’s landmark revenue share provision. Jordan is more than just a symbol of athletic excellence: he represents the power of knowing your value.
Affleck’s sharp and engaging direction bolsters Air’s thoughtful thematic storytelling. He fashions the film as a zippy, tight celebration of the ‘80s. The film rarely lags in its pacing, as Affleck imbues even the slowest moments with a dab of urgency. He leans heavily into the era’s style, affixing a grainy analog style to some scenes and pumping the soundtrack full of hip-hop and power pop classics ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Run-DMC. It would be easy for it to come across as disingenuous, a blatant play to the dudes rock vibes of films like Matt Damon’s other recent vehicle Ford vs. Ferrari. There is an earnestness to Affleck’s approach, though. He balances an irreverent self-awareness about Reagan-era capitalism’s gaudy excesses with the small-town spirit that young Jordan embodied. It all comes together in an undeniable fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing package.
Air’s irresistible energy permeates its excellent cast. Affleck has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, himself included, and everyone delivers top-form performances for him. Matt Damon does a great job capturing the full spectrum of emotion behind Vacarro’s gamble, from his lasered-in excitement at seeing Jordan on tape to the panic when he senses Nike is losing him during the pitch. Jason Bateman, in particular, plays a solid counterbalance, adding a potent straight-man realism to Damon’s passion-fueled frenzy. Viola Davis infuses Deloris Jordan with her trademark steely presence that serves the mother’s protective instincts while exuding an inviting and disarming warmth. Chris Messina is a delight as David Falk, chewing up his too-few scenes with a ferocious, hilarious bite.
Air is a risky proposition. It’s about one of the most recognizable people of the 20th century and never shows his face. It eschews the interpersonal dynamics that typically yield compelling dramatic beats for a straightforward survey of the minutiae of dealmaking. Even with those roadblocks, Affleck takes after his not-subject and soars above them. He crafts an engaging and entertaining film that finds genuine heart in the themes he seeks to convey. You can ding him for his backdoor effort to tell Michael Jordan’s story without him. Still, Air captures an essential piece of his legacy: his ability to make you believe in the impossible, the immortal.