Review: Ben Affleck’s Nike drama Air is so charming it will make the most strident of socialists root for corporate America
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Review: Ben Affleck’s Nike drama Air is so charming it will make the most strident of socialists root for corporate America

Aug 13, 2023

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in Air.Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios


Directed by Ben Affleck

Written by Alex Convery

Starring Matt Damon, Viola Davis and Ben Affleck

Classification 14A; 112 minutes

Opens in theatres April 7

Critic's Pick

Like Jerry Maguire if Cuba Gooding Jr. was Michael Jordan and Renee Zellweger was a shoe, Ben Affleck's new movie Air is a business-of-sports movie that is all about stock- and stats-obsessed guy's guys who reveal themselves to be big ol’ sentimental softies once the shot clock hits zero. Which is not a knock in the slightest: Affleck's film, half corporate comedy and half inspirational biopic, is a well-oiled machine of a movie, as slick and convincing as its obvious show-me-the-money inspiration. It had me at, "Just Do It."

On paper, Air is not a remotely enticing pitch. Would you like to watch a full-length feature film about the contractual intricacies of how Nike, circa 1984, convinced NBA rookie Michael Jordan to sign an endorsement contract? No, of course not, because you are a real and serious person. Yet through a series of minor filmmaking masterstrokes – rhythmic dialogue, bouncy pacing, a record store's worth of needle-drops, wonderfully on-the-nose casting and one crucial storytelling decision that is so counterintuitive that it works in spite of itself – Affleck has produced the kind of smoothly entertaining movie that washes over you, like waves on a beach. Or sneaker squeaks on a basketball court.

Air, playing a little loose with historical timelines but bear-hugging period-accurate set design, focuses on the potentially less intriguing end of the Jordan-Nike deal: Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the Nike basketball guru and marketing executive who pushes his company, then lagging behind Adidas and Converse, to put all their resources into securing Jordan before he plays his first NBA game. While the natural dramatic tension might rest on the other side of the deal, with the young Jordan and his family being besieged by corporate overtures, Affleck and his screenwriter, Alex Convery (whose last name sounds like a shoe conglomerate, come to think of it), pivot from narrative assumptions to focus on the grinding cogs of cultural capitalism.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in Air.Amazon Studios

Practically, this means most of Air's scenes are focused not on any actual on-the-court or family-huddle action but rather pasty white dudes pacing back and forth in bland offices and boardrooms, fretting over the details of a deal whose historical importance they cannot possibly grasp in the moment. Jordan himself isn't even a speaking character here, his towering frame only glimpsed in the background, with all the negotiations handled by his father, James (Julius Tennon), but really by his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), a woman of steel-fortified nerves and gut-led ambition that has become the actress's specialty.

Yet this backward script construction ultimately works because Affleck stacks his cast of Nike staff with the most charismatic, easy-to-root-for actors of the day. Not only his long-time friend Damon (working with him here for only the third time, after Good Will Hunting and The Last Duel), but also Jason Bateman (playing a very Bateman-y smart-aleck marketing executive), Chris Tucker (a fast-talking basketball fiend who is often the only Black man in Nike's many rooms), and Chris Messina (Jordan's rep, equal parts superagent Ari Emanuel and walking-talking steak knife).

And, because he can and he should, Affleck has given himself the most plum role of all, playing the eternally jogging, Buddhist aphorism-spouting shoe-dog CEO of Nike, Phil Knight. (Just to goose the Jerry Maguire vibes further, Affleck slides in Tom Cruise's one-time onscreen rival Jay Mohr here into a quick role as a competing sneaker executive.)

Nailing the 1980s details – car phones as large as microwaves and jogging shorts as neon-bright as an episode of Miami Vice – Affleck recreates an era that feels almost wistful in its relative simplicity. And even when the director threatens to overstuff his soundtrack with every single hit of the era – when Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time comes on during a supposedly tense "wait-and-see" moment in the action, the movie inches dangerously close to Saturday Night Live territory – Affleck pulls back just before the whole endeavour tips over into ridiculousness. (The film's retro biz vibes also make Air a solid double bill with the forthcoming BlackBerry, a far superior but sensibility-aligned comedy from Canadian director Matt Johnson.)

The movie is so across-the-board charming that even the most hardcore of socialists will find themselves rooting for Nike – that bastion of global corporate responsibility – to make gobs and gobs of money off the hard work of a young Black athlete. (The film makes a point, perhaps too late in its game, that the company's Jordan deal changed the fortunes for so many disadvantaged families for generations to come.)

Now five films in as a director, Affleck has proven himself to be as confident a presence behind the camera as he can so often be in front of it. All right, he still might not quite be able to stick the landing – there's an extended ending here that unspools reams and reams of onscreen text, not as silly as the final shot of The Town, but then again what is? – but more or less, Air is a three-point win. Swish. Sorry: Swoosh.