Ben returns to the director’s chair with a simple yet satisfying true story.
It has been seven years since we last saw Ben Affleck direct a film with 2016’s lukewarm Live by Night. But before that, Affleck was on a trajectory like very few in Hollywood after directing films like Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and then the Oscar-winning film Argo. After Argo, you know what happened when he decided to donned the cape and cowl as Batman in multiple movies. But now after being done with portraying the vigilante, Affleck is back doing what he does best (although he’s also a great actor) with Air. With a stellar cast similar to one you would see in an NBA All-Star Game, Air is a slam dunk drama about a major shoe company’s pursuit of an athlete who forever changed their brand and sports marketing in general.
Air follows the Nike brand at their headquarters in Oregon, where they are third in the market share (by a large margin) for basketball shoes behind Adidas and Converse. While the company, run by CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) is more focused on running, Nike basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) sees basketball as the future of shoe sales. As the head of Nike marketing, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), prepares to pitch to upcoming rookies to sign with their company, Vaccaro wants to pursue talent that is above the mid-tier level of players they are used to singing. Instead, Vaccaro sets his sights on the one player Nike should persuade to sign with them: Michael Jordan. The fact that Jordan previously agreed to sign with Adidas won’t stop Vaccaro from bypassing Jordan’s agent (Chris Messina) and going directly to the person who has Michael’s best interests at heart–his mother (Violas Davis).
The full court press to recruit Michael Jordan to become Nike’s first big ambassador won’t surprise viewers since we already know how the film ends. But it’s how the movie presents its pursuit and pitch from the company to the greatest athlete of all-time that makes this story so engaging. While you won’t see the face of the actor portraying Jordan in this film, we have seen so much of this athlete prior to this film, it’s no disappointment. However, audiences get to see the inner workings of sports business, the banter between corporate employees, talent evaluators, agents, and the people behind making the soles that comfort our feet. With Afflect’s direction and a sharp (and often funny) script from Alex Convery, scenes pop off like basketball players taking it to the hoops.
But what really brings everything together in Air is its dynamic cast from top to bottom, which makes for the year’s best ensemble so far. Starting at the top is Damon, who delivers the goods once again as the person responsible for bringing Michael Jordan to Nike (he’s also the reason high school all-star basketball games happen around the country, as the film reminds us more than once). Bateman and Affleck are also exceptional as top executives at Nike, delivering quirks we’re used to seeing from them that translate well here. In short bursts, Messina is hilarious as Jordan’s agent, along with Davis, who takes the spotlight in just about every scene she’s in. It’s also good to see Chris Tucker here, who we rarely see nowadays, back on the big screen in a supporting role as another Nike executive. And finally, Matthew Maher is scene-stealing as Peter Moore, the designer at Nike who perfects the shoe in the company’s pitch to Jordan.
It’s great to see Ben Affleck firing on all cylinders again behind a project that is right up in his wheelhouse. Air is more than just a layup for the acclaimed Hollywood star, as its underlying message in the third act is a great reflection on how the sports business was forever changed (and continues to change) thanks to the arrival of Michael Jordan. And it’s just good to see Affleck and Damon teamed up again, and it’s fitting that it’s in a movie about a sports icon and a revolutionary approach to sports marketing.