Witness a legend take flight in “Air”

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, May 16, 2023

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Leaping from the baseline this week is “Air,” a wonderfully entertaining film from the very steady hands of director Ben Affleck. 

The film is Affleck’s fifth directorial venture and arguably his strongest entry yet, trading life or death dramatism for a more nuanced tension and yielding an even more effective film in the process. The story at the center of “Air” is the deal that then-rookie, now legend, Michael Jordan made with a then-second-rate running shoe brand, Nike. This partnership propelled Nike to new commercial heights as Jordan soon ascended to an unforeseen peak of basketball stardom. 

This monumental deal was the brainchild of Nike recruiting expert Sonny Vacaro, whose unbridled energy is brilliantly portrayed by Matt Damon as the film’s lead. Affleck also flourishes in front of the camera, playing Nike’s eccentrically subdued CEO Phil Knight. 

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As they proved nearly 25 years ago in “Good Will Hunting” (Van Sant 1997), the on-screen pairing of Affleck and Damon will always provide for an entertaining rapport, mining their real lifelong friendship to believably shape characters. 

You do not have to be a fan of basketball or an expert on sneakers to enjoy this film. The dialogue is snappy and the acting is deeply grounded, providing depth and realism. The film is still able to successfully achieve narrative tension despite most of us knowing how the story ends. We know Jordan signed with Nike, and the rest is, as they say, is history. 

Michael Jordan is only ever shown in “Air” through archival footage, as his personal story is secondary to the story of those who shaped his career-defining deal: Sonny Vacaro and Jordan’s mother, Deloris, played by the ever-compelling Viola Davis. Ultimately, this is a film about process, about the massively important work between an idea and seeing that idea come to fruition. Sonny is the idea and our guide along the way, with Deloris the final step to fruition, and the other characters are an integral part of the process. 

“Air” is impressively able to take a story of corporate success and make it into a film that trades in much deeper and more poignant concepts, predominantly a soulful reflection on America. It’s an excellently crafted period piece as well, bringing the 80s into full frame and resisting the urge to make human characters larger than life. The legend of Jordan’s celebrity and the success of Nike’s “Air Jordan” is well known. The process of how that came to be is told here, capably, confidently and, like Jordan himself, entertainingly.