The story of how Nike signed Michael Jordan is surprisingly gripping
Ben Affleck is a polarizing figure within Hollywood, the Boston-native has had a rollercoaster acting trajectory, and his directing career has sadly suffered because of it. His last directing job was seven years ago with the detective noir Live by Night (2016), but Affleck has gratefully returned to the directing chair, with the true tale of how Nike signed Michael Jordan.
Air (2023) follows Nike talent executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who becomes ridiculously obsessed with signing rookie Michael Jordan in 1984, to save the fledgling basketball arm of the shoe-making company. Nike is only third in market share within the sneaker industry, and this longshot bet could catapult them into becoming contenders again. Sonny is aided and confronted by various characters, from Jordan’s own mother (Viola Davis) to Jordan’s agent (Chris Messina), the head of Nike Marketing (Jason Bateman), and even Nike’s CEO (Ben Affleck).
To pull off an intriguing corporate narrative is hard; viewers can’t be lost amidst the negotiating jargon and clear stakes and villains must be set forth. This path, however, can lead to cartoonish depictions of how this real-world works, thus a near impossible balance is needed. Affleck and Air’s screenplay from Alex Convery manage to straddle this difficult equilibrium, delivering a pacey rhythm and intriguing characters. While we all know how the true story ends, Air impressively creates a sense of suspense as to what its outcome will be.
Air is further upgraded thanks to a stellar cast, each supporting player is pin-point perfect in their roles, from a long-awaited return of Chris Tucker to the always solid Bateman. Davis is somewhat wasted with a role that is insultingly small for her, but apparently Michael Jordan himself had requested she play her mother, and who is to turn him down? Damon is the glue that brings this whole film together, making his seemingly ridiculous bet on Michael Jordan seem like genuine passion. Damon has a severely underappreciated quality to play the everyman, bringing unnoticeable charisma that has helped ground films as big as The Martian (2015) or as small as Good Will Hunting (1997). Air brings that everyman Damon back, and from his first few seconds onscreen you’re rooting for him to win.
There was a controversial decision in Air to not show Jordan as a character. We get few silhouettes and offscreen voices, but Affleck specifically wanted him offscreen to not break the mirage of his iconic status. This has worked in other films about real figures; it was done to great effect in She Said (2022) with the menacing character of Harvey Weinstein. Air could have successfully pulled this off, but unfortunately, Michael Jordan’s character is in too many scenes; his omission through camera angles and focus comes across as forced and almost insulting.
The finale of Air steps into generic and cheesy sports territory, with Jordan appearing to have been won over by an inspiring speech, instead of the groundbreaking share in sneaker revenue that was pioneered at the end of negotiations, but Hollywood will irresistibly always have its Hollywood moments.
In the end, Air is that rare breed of film: a crowd-pleasing mid-budget feature. Affleck returns to directing form by simplifying a complex corporate story into an entertaining narrative about underdogs. Along with the all-star cast and a steady pace, it makes Air an irresistibly good time.