Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Amazon Studios releases the film in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.
Today, there are 37 different variations of Air Jordan models available. From the basketball court to the streets and even the catwalk, the Nike sneakers have become a staple of American culture. Director Ben Affleck’s “Air” invites audiences into Nike headquarters to experience the story behind the popular shoe that was built solely for the legendary athlete for which it is named: Michael Jordan.
Set in 1984, Affleck stars as Nike founder Phil Knight. An ambitious, rebellious, and passionate leader who likes to live by — and reiterate — Douglas McArthur’s famous quote “you are remembered for the rules you break,” Knight thrived on taking risks. During this time, Nike was not as successful as its competitors Adidas and Converse, and their NBA division was struggling to sign an athlete to sponsor their gear. Nike’s basketball guru in charge of changing that slump was Sonny Vaccaro (played in the film by Matt Damon). As the Nike board began questioning the relevance of his position at Nike, Vaccaro sought to do something wild: sign Chicago Bulls’ rookie Michael Jordan to literally change the game for Nike and marketing a brand at large.
Affleck’s directing style is on point, with several aerial and close-up shots that allow the actors to really shine. He also includes old footage from famous commercials, music videos, and sports games to set the stage for the era audiences are about to revisit or enter for the first time. Interludes of quotes from Nike’s 10 principles also help viewers to understand the ethos of the dedicated company employees, many of which are fans and former athletes or runners themselves. For example, “our business is change,” “we’re on offense, all the time,” and “if we do the right things we’ll make money damn near automatic,” are shown throughout the film. Several references to the company’s history are mentioned throughout the film’s 1 hour and 52 minute running time and potentially could have been pulled from Knight’s inspirational memoir “Shoe Dog.”
In order to sign Jordan, Vaccaro has to go through Michael’s arrogant agent David Falk (hilariously played by Chris Messina). The competitive banter between Vaccaro and Falk comprise some of the best comedic scenes in the film and will have audiences rolling thanks to writer Alex Convery’s smart script. While Falk is primarily concerned with financial gain, Vaccaro’s approach to their corporate competition is to go around Jordan’s agent and approach his parents face-to-face, a bold approach viewed as unprofessional by his colleagues. Driving to North Carolina, Vaccaro meets James R. Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) in an attempt to win them over.
As the Nike crew prepares for the big pitch to the Jordan family, audiences are introduced to the other key players. Jason Bateman stars as Rob Strasser, VP of Marketing, and Chris Tucker as Howard White, the man who eventually became VP of the Jordan Brand for Nike. Bateman brings a cautionary yet supportive approach to Strasser, while Tucker’s vibrant and electric energy breaks through and captivates the Jordans as White. Each actor’s performance in “Air” is a phenomenal in their own right and they work like a team to create one of the most engaging buisness success stories in history on screen.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson captures initial scenes with a grainy haze synonymous with old school VHS tapes one would use to record games back in the ‘80s. As the image clears throughout the film, Richardson is able to counterbalance the vintage set design courtesy of production designer François Audouy extremely well. Shoe dogs and sneaker heads will enjoy several Easter eggs in the Nike office including newspaper clippings from Nike’s original Blue Ribbon days and several artifacts from Knight’s international travels.
Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones does an amazing job conveying the times and showcasing all of the vintage Nike clothing worn by the staff. This creative team behind the camera excels at immersing audiences into the business world of the ‘80s while also playing on the modern day love of nostalgia.
The decision to not have an actor play Michael Jordan was wise. Affleck clearly took a great amount of care with this project by respecting the legend and his loving family. He consulted with Jordan to get his blessing on the film, receive any input, and honor Jordan’s condition to have the supreme Viola Davis play his mother. While many may assume “Air” is about the game or MJ himself, it is actually about the underdogs of Nike creating a brand that was revolutionary for the times. Before Air Jordans, there had not been a marketing strategy to this degree. As Strasser says, “a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.”
Another impactful aspect of the film is how the story becomes about family. Davis brings such a large amount of warmth and strength to playing Deloris Jordan, a woman who knew her son’s worth and fought for him to get his share of the pie. Subtle yet stern, her performance evokes such empathy and class as Deloris navigates the business deals proposed to her and her adoring husband. On several occasions, her presence on screen has the tendency to give audiences goosebumps because of just how perfectly she honors Mrs. Jordan and how she carries herself knowing that her son is a legend whose impact to the game will be forever lifechanging. It’s all quite beautiful.
Each actor in Affleck’s latest film gives a powerful and awards-worthy performance. “Air” is a slam dunk and ultimately one of the best sports movies ever made. Affleck successfully captures Nike’s heartwarming and hilarious marketing journey while paying respectful homage to all involved. “Air” is a tremendous underdog story filled with lovable characters. It’s truly a film about legends made by legends.
“Air” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.