“A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.” It is with this phrase that Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) tried to convince Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young) and his mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), that Nike was where Jordan should stake his claim as a future all-star in the NBA. It was through Vaccaro’s burning belief and one of the biggest gambles in the history of sports that the Air Jordan was born.
Unless viewers have quite literally been living under a rock their entire lives, they will know exactly how the story of “Air” plays out. Luckily, the journey to the world-famous destination is filled with smart and witty writing, fantastic performances from a stacked cast of likable actors and solid direction from Ben Affleck, who also stars in the film.
Above all else, “Air” is an underdog story. The film takes place in 1984 when Nike, the biggest sports brand to ever exist, was struggling to keep its head above water in the basketball sportswear business. As Philip H. Knight (Affleck), the company’s former CEO famously once said, “Orwell was right: 1984 was a tough year.”
When Vaccaro came up with the idea to center an entire shoe line around one player while working at Nike, no one thought it would work. Vaccaro put his career on the line to fight for what he believed in. For him, it was never about the potential riches that may be mined from the shoe’s success. From the beginning, he recognized that Jordan was the future of the game and that he would serve as an inspiration for millions of people in the future. It is Vaccaro’s infectious belief and Damon’s depiction of it that is the heart of “Air.”
Although Damon is the lead in “Air,” he is nearly overshadowed by several memorable performances from its stellar supporting cast. Each actor has impeccable chemistry with each other. Some of the film’s best moments come when the characters are simply having casual conversations with each other. Whether it is David Falk (Chris Messina), Jordan’s agent, making exaggerated threats to Vaccaro over the phone for visiting Jordan’s parents behind his back or Howard White (Chris Tucker) explaining to Vaccaro what sets Nike apart from other brands like Converse and Adidas, each actor’s charisma bleeds through the screen.
Davis is an obvious standout. The actress who recently earned her EGOT status is phenomenal in a role that was originally meant to be smaller before Michael Jordan personally selected her for the part. Davis’ natural command of the screen pairs perfectly with the film’s depiction of Deloris. She is a figure who is in charge of every situation and commands respect.
As Knight, Affleck brings a sense of authority to the table in the story. His desire to believe in Vaccaro’s plan is contradictory to his obligations to Nike’s board and his role as CEO. He uses Buddhist mantras to try to provide the film’s characters with advice but is contradicted in part by his own luxurious lifestyle, producing some great laughs throughout the film.
As director, Affleck does not do anything notably interesting aside from an incredible opening montage that implants viewers in the film’s ’80s setting. He also includes an entire soundtrack’s worth of incredible needle drops that often enhance the story, accentuating the spectacular production design. The overall quality of the film speaks for itself and Affleck proves once again, like he has done in the past with films like the best picture-winning “Argo” (2012), that he is more than capable behind the camera.
One aspect that holds the film back is its lack of a plot that completely grabs viewers’ attention. Although the story is interesting, one cannot help but notice the giant Michael Jordan-shaped hole that it is missing. Affleck has stated that he chose not to include Jordan in any major capacity because he thought the audience would find it distracting to see someone else play the all-star who is not Jordan himself. However, if the hit HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is any indication, this could not be more inaccurate. Jordan does not appear in the film outside of archival footage and shots in which the actor playing him is not facing the camera and is not speaking.
In a story about Michael Jordan, many viewers may expect to see him portrayed in the film. The fact that he is not leaves a lot of interesting material sitting on the table never to be told. While having his mother play a major role in the story helps fill in some of the gaps, it would have better served the film to have an actor playing Jordan acting opposite Davis, raising tension in the story.
“Air” is most certainly a crowd-pleaser. Just like the Air Jordan, it aims to make viewers want to fly by the time it reaches its conclusion. Although it mostly succeeds, one cannot help but think how it could have soared even higher.