The power of Ben Affleck's "Air" gotta be more than the shoes

The legendary line of sports apparel gets an easygoing '80s sports origin story that reunites Affleck and Damon

Published April 5, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in "Air" (Amazon Studios)
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in "Air" (Amazon Studios)

Even though everyone knows Michael Jordan has been associated with Nike for nearly four decades, "Air," nimbly recounts the origin story of how that business deal transpired. It is a good American underdog story, and director Ben Affleck tells it in a slick, enjoyable style. Nike, in Beaverton, Oregon, had a pitiful 17% share of a sneaker market dominated by Adidas and Converse — until it signed a game-changing contract with Jordan.

"Air" is not deep, nor is it demanding. Affleck spoon-feeds viewers what they need to know to understand the business, including some comic Nike lore, such as one rumored origin of the "Just Do It" slogan, and CEO Phil Knight's (Affleck) comments about the company's name and trademark swoosh

Affleck also uses popular culture to keep the story upbeat. An opening sequence features a montage of moments from 1984, the year the film takes place, set to Dire Straits' (1985) song, "Money for Nothing." It is one of about two dozen on-the-nose needle drops Affleck uses throughout "Air." (Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" is used during a waiting period; Springsteen's anthem, "Born in the U.S.A.," is also featured on the soundtrack and in a speech one character gives.) But the wall-to-wall music keeps viewers engaged because the story is more talk than action. 

Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is a Nike basketball talent scout. He is supposed to help find a player to endorse Nike's sneakers, but Phil has a limited budget, and the basketball division is on the chopping block. It needs a miracle. (Cue: Mike & The Mechanics' "All I Need Is a Miracle," another 1985 song.) Sonny believes that Miracle is Jordan, and he convinces himself watching both an Arthur Ashe commercial about a customized racquet as well as a game where Jordan displays his talents as an athlete. His analysis of Jordan's ease on the court, and seeing something in his game that others miss, is masterful.

If any scene in the film provides goosebumps, it is this one.

Sonny tries to get Nike's marketing manager Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) to buy into his vision. Rob is skeptical, and like Phil, he doesn't want to sink all the money into one player; they want three or four options. And even if Nike goes all in for Jordan, getting a meeting with the athlete — who is loyal to Adidas with Converse as a backup — is going to require Jordan's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina) getting a commitment in writing, something Sonny can't authorize.

The scenes between Sonny and David are witty and snappy with both men teasing and insulting the other with a patter that crackles. David rages hilariously in one scene, where he screams at Sonny, threatening to "eat his nuts," and Messina is having a blast chewing the scenery. 

These exchanges provide some of the most amusing scenes in "Air," but they bested only by the more thoughtful ones between Sonny and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), Michael's mother. Sonny skirts around David by showing up at the Jordan's home in Wilmington, NC, and lays out why he hopes to pitch Michael Nike. (The meeting is signposted early on when Sonny is told that if he wants to get to the son, go through the mom.) 

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in "Air" (Amazon Studios)

Watching Sonny and Deloris square off here is where the film's real heart and tension are.

Affleck cannily shows the power dynamics between these two determined people – a nervy, desperate corporate exec and Jordan's formidable mother – but he also brings out the real humanity in this moment. Sonny's impassioned speech is his way of connecting with Deloris, and he is seen having this same kind of connection with only one other person in the film — a 7-Eleven Clerk (Asanté Deshon) who seems to love the game of basketball as much as Sonny does. Sonny's colleagues at Nike are not as invested as he is, but viewers are, which is why "Air" engages.

In contrast, the scenes between Sonny and Phil are kind of leaden because they are meant to generate the film's tension. Will Phil risk his company on MJ, who Sonny is betting his entire career on? (Of course, he will!) Whatever pleasure there is in seeing Ben and Matt spar verbally, it feels strained. Better are scenes featuring Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), the sneaker designer who comes up with the Air Jordans (and maybe even its name). If any scene in the film provides goosebumps, it is this one, where the sneaker is discussed, designed and revealed. 

"Air" features some other memorable moments, most notably Sonny's speech during the Jordan family visit and meeting. Damon sells this scene to viewers just as he is selling this moment to the Jordans, and Alex Convery's screenplay (his first) excels here, with Sonny foreseeing Jordan's future as an athlete and superstar, who is going to be scrutinized throughout the ups and downs of his personal and professional life. Affleck slickly uses headlines and magazine covers as well as archival images to illustrate everything from a triumphant career on the basketball court to tragedies including his father's murder. It may be manipulative, but it is also irresistible. He also cannily never shows Jordan's face. (Damian Young, who plays the basketball legend.)

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The film hums along — Big Country, Violent Femmes, Chaka Khan, and many others make appearances on the fabulous soundtrack — before it finally gets to its point, where Deloris offers Sonny and Nike the contract with an unexpected, and unprecedented condition. Watching Sonny and Deloris square off here is where the film's real heart and tension are. More is said about corporate America, money and race in this scene than any other in "Air," and it provides the film with some real power. Affleck does not quite bury the lede so much as build to a conclusion that leaves audiences feeling elated. 

"Air" opens in theatres nationwide April 5.


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Air Amazon Prime Ben Affleck Fashion Matt Damon Movies Nike Prime Video Review Sneakers