Air (2023) Review

Air (2023)
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenwriter: Alex Convery
Starring: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, Matthew Maher, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis

Ben Affleck returns to the director’s chair for the first time in six years to turn what could be a dry boardroom drama into a thrilling, feel-good piece about the creation of the Air Jordan brand at Nike. The film, written by debut screenwriter Alex Convery, is centred around the struggling Nike Basketball division in 1984, focusing on the efforts of talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) as he hatches a ballsy plan to recruit up-and-coming star player Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young).

Air plunges us into 1984: a montage of archival footage from the year accompanied with a sound bridge of Dire Straits’ electrifying ‘Money for Nothing’, several cutaway sequences to various memorabilia of the decade such as retro cereals and fax machines, a nostalgic foot-tapping soundtrack that illuminates the experience. Some of this works really well, such as a euphoric use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and an emotional pay-off that comes in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. But some is clumsy and tonally jarring. At times, it can feel like the nostalgia factor is forced to maintain the film’s feel-good tone, in order to keep us entertained during dialogue-heavy business meetings. This echoes the current trend of 80s nostalgia in both film and television, with ‘Stranger Things’ in 2016 being the catalyst. It is a formula that has started to grow rather stale.

On the surface, a film about executives at a sportswear brand may appear to be essentially a two-hour business meeting, but Air utilises all of the more exciting conventions of the typical sports film. At its core, this is an underdog story in which Nike Basketball are the underdogs of the sportswear game. They are underfunded (in a company worth over one billion dollars) and a laughing stock compared to the more successful divisions of rival brands Adidas and Converse. Their ‘team’ comprises of the gutsy Vaccaro, the sensitive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), the eccentric Pete Moore (Matthew Maher), and the comedic Howard White (Chris Tucker). They are ‘managed’ by the spiritual Nike CEO Philip Knight, who is played by Ben Affleck himself. This mix of personalities, elevated by Alex Convery’s dynamic script and a stellar ensemble of supporting actors, creates a team that we can root for, even though they are playing the ruthless game of big business.

The focus on the business side of sport draws comparisons to other crowd-pleasers such as Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011) and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996). Both of these films centre around a sports person in a managerial role – coach and agent, respectively – and their relationships with the sports people they are involved with. Although the same premise can be applied to Air, Affleck’s direction takes a different, rather polarising approach. In both Moneyball and Jerry Maguire, the athletes are characters with their own agency within the narrative. In Air, the fictional Michael Jordan’s face is never revealed to us, Affleck instead using archival footage of the real Jordan and his achievements to create this revered character within the film.

Air isn’t a biopic about Michael Jordan, it’s a biopic about the jumpman silhouette that is stitched into every single pair of the Air Jordan shoes that Jordan and Nike made famous. It is a tale of how design, marketing and business go hand-in-hand to help transform a relatively unknown basketball prospect into an American icon.

The anchor of Air is its screenplay, as Convery’s work is well-paced and tight, making the film feel like a chapter in a miniseries about Jordan’s career and legacy. Despite featuring lots of business and sports-related jargon, the plot is straightforward enough to be enjoyed by a wide audience. The most significant strength of the script is the portrayal of the relationships between Vaccaro, Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis). Falk provides an obstacle for Vaccaro, giving the first insight into Jordan’s negative feelings towards Nike. From there, Damon’s everyman portrayal of Vaccaro contrasts brilliantly with Messina’s tough-talking, bad-mouthed sports agent, transforming Falk from just an obstacle in the narrative into a memorable character that we love to hate.

One of the most memorable moments of Air comes in a monologue delivered passionately by Damon as Vaccaro. He tells Jordan about how the shoe will allow people from around the world to have their own piece of Jordan’s greatness, adding meaning to their lives. The film is not about the man Michael Jordan; it is about the myth and the legend of Air Jordan. Air is just like the shoes, another way for us to get a glimpse of Jordan’s transcendent magic.

Then, there’s Deloris Jordan, who provides the film’s heart in the midst of all the fast-talking and hard-hitting aspects of the business world. Whilst Falk has Jordan’s interests in mind, Deloris is the only character whose main priority is her son’s happiness and stability. Davis, hand-picked by Michael Jordan himself, gives a stellar performance by bringing each of us, and Vaccaro, back down to Earth to remind us that no amount of money or flattery can overtake the basic principles of respect and courtesy. In the first scene we are introduced to Deloris, she shows Vaccaro a tree that has been in the Jordan household for hundreds of years, sharply contrasting with the cold, corporate environment of the Nike offices. Deloris reminds us that this is not a straightforward underdog tale, but a story about protecting the interests of the ones we love so that they can grow and live on beyond our lifetimes, just as the tree will.

Air is a light, well-paced film that makes two hours fly by. It will leave you thinking, ‘wow, I can’t believe I got so invested in a pair of shoes’. It subverts the traditional boardroom drama, keeping us entertained with a mixture of comedic one-liners and heartfelt monologues, all interspersed with familiar 80s nostalgia. To echo Vaccaro’s words, ‘Air Jordan… it’s fucking fantastic.’

Score: 19/24

Written by Grace Laidler

Follow Grace Laidler on Twitter: @gracewillhuntin

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