Air, Ben Affleck’s return to the director’s chair after his 2016 misstep, Live by Night, is a winner—easily the breeziest film he’s ever helmed. He reunites with buddy Matt Damon to tell the story of Nike’s pursuit of the great Michael Jordan, and a shoe deal that made history in the 1980s.
By focusing on Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), the Nike executive who relentlessly pursued Jordan on a hunch that the rookie just might be a big deal, Affleck consciously chooses to almost completely exclude the physical presence of Michael Jordan. It’s a weird choice, but it works out just fine, with the emphasis going on folks like Vaccaro; Jordan’s warrior mom, Deloris (Viola Davis); quirky Nike founder Phil Knight (Affleck); and marketing pioneer Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman).
The movie certainly falls into the sports genre, but it’s also a fun take on sports marketing and salesmanship in general. It’s great fun watching the machinations behind the scenes that led to Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) designing a sneaker, over a rushed weekend, that would change sports marketing forever—and make a lot of people, including Mr. Jordan, very rich.
Damon gives a fun, folksy performance as Vaccaro, an old-school marketer with some self-esteem issues, a mix of progressive and archaic ideas, and perhaps a gambling problem. Damon’s scene with Davis at the Jordan household, where Vaccaro allegedly showed up uninvited, will stand as one of the year’s best, and their conversation on the phone later in the film is a stunner.
Bateman taps into his dramatic side with a heartwarming performance as a guy who really wants to keep his job so he can get free sneakers for his daughter. Chris Messina gets the film’s biggest laughs as fiery sports agent David Falk, a triple-R-rated Jerry Maguire thanks to his filthy mouth.
Affleck offers many obvious and occasionally gratuitous nods to 1980s wardrobe and culture. (There are many insert shots of things like Rubik’s Cubes.) He and Damon spend some scenes together, and that’s always good to see.
Affleck’s movies as a director had all been dour before this one, so it’s fun to see him expanding a bit and having a good time.
As sports movies go, Air plays like a sneaker version of Moneyball; as marketing/sales films go, it plays like a much, much happier version of Glengarry Glen Ross, complete with plenty of curse words when things get heated.
Air is playing at theaters across the valley.