Air review: Ben Affleck makes great sports movie without any sport

Chris Tilly
Ben Affleck as Phil Knight, sitting in his office, in Air.

Air, Ben Affleck’s star-studded new movie about the shoe industry’s race to sign Michael Jordan, manages to be an entertaining sports movie that features very little actual sport.

Air is about an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force. Michael Jordan is the immovable object – a basketball prodigy who has just signed for the Chicago Bulls, and only wants to wear Adidas sneakers when he plays.

Sonny Vaccaro is the unstoppable force – Nike’s ‘Basketball Guru’ who sees Jordan as not only the future of his company, but also the future of basketball, and maybe even sport itself.

Ben Affleck’s new movie – which he both directs and stars in – puts these two men on a collision course with incredibly high stakes. And it makes for a thrilling story that uses all the conventions of a classic sports movie, while telling a boardroom tale that somehow builds to a fist-pumping finale.

The big idea

The story tips-off with a 1984 montage to give viewers a sense of time and place, as well as some big tunes. We’re then introduced to Sonny doing what Sonny does at a High School game – watch, charm, recruit. Followed by him heading home via a stopover in Las Vegas where we see another side of the character, winning big by betting on basketball, then losing even bigger on dice.

As played by Matt Damon, Vaccaro is a visionary with huge ideas, a salesman who won’t take no for an answer, and a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules. So pretty much the perfect protagonist.

And Sonny has an idea for his employers regarding player sponsorship – rather than spreading their $250k shoe budget across three average players, bet it all on one: a kid from Wilmington, North Carolina, who might be rough around the edges, but who has bags of potential.

The game plan

It’s then Sonny vs the world, with the first half of the film following his efforts to convince the team at Nike, and the second half spent watching him try to woo Jordan away from first choice Adidas. As well as his second choice Converse, with Nike starting out a distant third.

Which means lots of conversations between men in boardrooms. And just as many conversations between those same men over phones. Which isn’t necessarily the stuff of great cinema. Indeed there are times when these scenes are staged and shot with little flair or imagination.

The powerhouse soundtrack helps however, featuring 1980s stalwarts likes Dire Straits, ZZ Top, Chaka Khan, Grandmaster Flash, Cyndi Lauper, and Bruce Springsteen to keep things motoring.

And even though a speech about the meaning of the Bruce’s Born in the USA sounds like bad standup, the rest of the dialogue frequently makes up for those visual shortcomings, with Alex Convery’s script filled with witty one-liners, delivered by the best in the business.

Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker are clearly having a blast playing Sonny’s colleagues Rob Strasser and Howard White, while it’s always fun seeing Damon spar with Affleck, who here plays Nike boss Phil Knight.

Matthew Maher also comes off the bench to very nearly steal the film, delivering an off-kilter performance as shoe designer Peter Moore. Pete’s ambition is to craft the greatest basketball shoe ever made, though it’s less a desire, and more an obsession. The potential arrival of Jordan means the demand is now there, and the way in which he rises to the occasion is both hilarious and inspiring.

The endgame

Once that ‘Dream Team’ is assembled, Air becomes about the endgame, which is to convince Michael Jordan himself. Sports agent David Falk – played with foul-mouthed intensity by Chris Messina – is the first defensive guard standing in Vaccaro’s way. And it only gets tougher from there, as the next blocker is Michael’s mom.

Howard White tells Sonny: “Always go through the mothers… especially in Black families.” Which results in a fun-filled sequence where Vaccaro secretly heads to Wilmington for a full-court press. And also in the film revealing its MVP.

Viola Davis plays Michael’s mother Deloris Jordan, and she becomes key, not only to Sonny securing the signature of her son, but also to the film working. As when Deloris plays hardball, she plays hardball, making the scenes between Damon and Davis compelling (because with hindsight we know exactly what’s at stake), and electric as these two great actors go toe-to-toe.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

What follows is more talk as the Nike team plan their meeting with the Jordans like a heist; whispering in dark rooms about tactics and strategies as they prepare the perfect pitch. Even though the guys are in their Nike offices and could probably afford to turn the lights on.

But it’s all about building atmosphere, and while the world knows how this all plays out, the film focusses on the fact that these men are putting their livelihoods on the line for longest of shots. Which adds tension and suspense to proceedings as the big meet approaches.

Mercifully, the finale doesn’t disappoint, with rousing speeches, dramatic fumbles, overtime ensuing, and victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat. All with barely a ball being thrown onscreen.

The Verdict – Is Air good?

Against the odds, Air is a triumph. The story couldn’t be more American. While with the talent involved, the film shouldn’t miss. But it’s strange watching a movie about sport, in which there’s barely a glimpse at the athlete around which the story revolves.

Equally, there’s something unsavoury about seeing mostly white men refer to that African-American as a commodity throughout, and more specifically in terms of how much money he can make them.

But Convery’s script is cleverly structured, so that via an emotionally charged conversation at the end of the movie, Air reveals what it was really about all along. Delivering a stunning three-pointer at the death for the biggest of wins.

Air review score: 4/5

Air is a fun boardroom caper about one of the greatest deals in sporting history. But it’s also more than that, telling the gripping tale of how one man shifted the most immovable of objects, and in the process changed basketball forever.

Air is released on April 5, 2023.

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