Ben Affleck has done neo-noir (2007’s Gone Baby Gone), a political thriller (2012’s Oscar-winning Argo) and crime dramas (2010’s The Town and 2016’s Live by Night). But his fifth directorial feature marks a significant departure for the actor-director. A departure that sees him making a movie about a pair of basketball shoes. Yes, you read it right. Basketball shoes. But they are not just ordinary pairs since we are talking about the classic Air Jordan, which is one of Nike’s most popular shoes ever created in the history of footwear.
You see, Air Jordan may have been famous and a pop-culture phenomenon even for today’s generation. But I’m not sure about seeing a movie about it and not especially after watching the trailer. First impressions always count when comes to the trailer and it sure didn’t convince me until I watched the movie in its entirety. And guess what, it exceeded my expectation. Ben Affleck does the impossible by making an Air Jordan movie compulsively watchable, thanks to his overall absorbing direction and Alex Convery’s entertaining screenplay.
The story gets off to a promising start as Affleck transports us back to the 1980s era. It was 1984 — the very year that gave us not one but two iconic Hollywood movies including Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters, both of which can be seen during the opening-credits montage. We are introduced to Sonny Vaccaro, who likes to gamble and works at Nike as an executive in the basketball division. Unfortunately, his division faces a huge struggle in the market as the sales are being dwarfed by its competitors including Adidas and Converse. He needs to do something about it because Phil Knight, both CEO and founder of Nike will have to pull the plug and Sonny would be out of his job.
At first, we see Sonny trying to pursue Phil to increase the company’s annual budget but the latter insists he can only give that much. A US$250,000 budget, to be exact. But after searching high and low to sign the best player for a sponsorship deal, Sonny finally finds the one he’s been looking for. A rookie player named Michael Jordan (Damian Young) caught Sonny’s attention when he watches the old footage of the young basketball athlete jumping and shooting the ball into the basket. It was a beautiful jump shot that he keeps re-watching over and over again. And so, he decided to pursue Phil to sign Michael Jordan and believes that spending a quarter million dollars solely on him is an investment worth risking for.
But that is just the beginning as Sonny needs to go through a lot of things, namely getting Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina) to set up a meeting. He also learns that Jordan loves Adidas the most and even considers Converse if the deal is good enough. With time running out, Sonny has no choice but to go behind David’s back by flying to North Carolina to meet Jordan’s parents, Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon, Davis’ real-life husband). Dealing with Deloris, who’s in charge of managing Jordan’s career is no pushover but Sonny tries his best to pursue her, giving her something more valuable than Adidas and Converse could possibly offer.
Sonny’s meeting scene with Deloris is one of the best moments in Air and it’s not just the way Matt Damon carries his role with sheer confidence and energy. Viola Davis, who reportedly had Michael Jordan himself insisted on her playing the role of his mother, does a great job delivering solid gravitas in her supporting performance. The movie also benefits from the rest of the top-notch ensemble cast all around and this includes everyone from Ben Affleck’s Phil Knight to Jason Bateman’s Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker’s Howard White and even Matthew Maher, where the latter plays the creative director of Nike, Peter Moore. Then, there’s Chris Messina, whose scene-stealing performance as Jordan’s agent, David Falk delivers most of the laughs in the movie.
Air may have been talky with most scenes revolving around boardroom meetings and making business deals through phone calls and face-to-face discussions. But Alex Convery has a knack for coming up with whip-smart and witty dialogue while Affleck knows well how to balance his movie between drama and comedy with great finesse. He even successfully captured the look and feel of the 1980s period with the help of Robert Richardson’s cinematography and François Audouy’s production design while Charlese Antoinette Jones’ vintage costume design deserves equal mention as well.
The only setback that doesn’t sits well with me is Affleck’s creative decision not to show the actor — Damian Young — playing the role of the young Michael Jordan. We never get to see him clearly other than obscuring his appearance, say from behind or offscreen when one of the scenes shows Matt Damon’s Sonny talking to him during a meeting. It was an odd move no matter how I look at it but such a flaw is forgivable because Air is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen this year and come award season, it would be a crime not to see it gets nominated.