If there’s anything that gets our collective movie-watcher soul stirring, it’s the underdog.
“Rocky.” “Creed.” “Rudy.” “Moneyball.” Major League.” No matter the sport, we love watching the dark horse take the crown. We latch on to these stories, particularly in the realm of sports, because we love watching someone triumph against all odds. We love watching someone achieve the impossible when everyone said it couldn’t be done.
“Air,” Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, is not your typical underdog story. First of all, it’s about Nike – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought of any corporation as having much of an underdog status. But what makes “Air” – which chronicles the beginning of the relationship between Nike and Michael Jordan and the creation of Air Jordans – so successful is how it transposes Jordan’s narrative over its own. Because for as much as the basketball legend’s presence looms large, this movie is not really about Michael Jordan. This is a movie about risky deals, mythmaking, and getting the most bang for your buck. This is a story about the business that helped transform Jordan into the cultural juggernaut he became, but Affleck’s direction tells it through the language of a classic sports film – movie star performances and inspirational speeches included.
We begin in 1984 – a time of Jane Fonda workouts, Reagan-era consumerism, and “Where’s the beef?” ads. A time when Nike was ahead in the running shoe game, but had a third-rate basketball division, trailing behind the likes of Converse and Adidas – nowhere near close to being on a young Michael Jordan’s radar.
We meet Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a shoe salesman at Nike who has been brought in by founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to revitalize basketball at the company. When deciding who to court following the 1984 NBA draft, Sonny has a ludicrous idea. What if Nike spent its entire basketball budget on a rookie named Michael Jordan? After getting pushback from all sides, Sonny takes his idea straight to the person that matters most – Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), Michael’s mother.
From the technology to the clothes to the soundtrack – which is stuffed to the brim with the likes of Dire Straits, Cyndi Lauper, and Night Ranger – “Air” turns the 1980s vibe up to eleven. The film opens with a montage that warp speeds its way through archival footage of the era, integrating the audience into the world of the film before seamlessly transitioning into the story itself. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, probably best known for his work with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, helps move the grain of the 1980s footage to a softly textured feel that heightens our sense of place and time. Meanwhile, every conversation, every move from one office to another, feels like a sports event. The camera is kinetic and active, whether it’s closely circling a group of men as they discuss their meeting plan of attack in hushed tones, or it’s pushing in on Damon as he delivers a Hail Mary speech right at the buzzer – a hallmark of any good sports movie.
The strongest thing “Air” has going for it is its stars, notably Affleck and Damon. The movie only solidifies that which we already know – together, these guys have the juice. After 2021’s “The Last Duel,” Affleck seems to have a propensity for playing lordly eccentrics. Phil Knight is certainly a much softer version of that type than he played in “The Last Duel,” but with his purple Porsche, pink running gear, and distaste for shoes, he more than fits the bill. But behind that hippie streak, there’s an anxiety that Affleck injects into the character, a high strung quality that’s evident in the pitch and tightening of his voice throughout his sparring matches with Sonny. Damon is effortlessly relatable as Sonny, movie star energy exuding out of an everyman package. But underneath all that normalcy, he’s positioned as the dreamer to Affleck’s realist. The film sets up the contrast between the characters and their inner contrasts in tandem – Knight as the bohemian pragmatist, and Sonny as the grounded hopeful. These outward and inner struggles set up a tension that’s more complex than you might expect, and delightfully fun to watch unfold.
These two are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, and Marlon Wayans. In particular, Chris Messina turns on the sleaze as Jordan’s agent David Falk, a suited-up snake on a power trip. But, from the moment Viola Davis enters the frame, it becomes Deloris Jordan’s movie.
What’s so striking about Davis in this role is her quiet magnetism. I recall an anecdote Meryl Streep has shared about Clint Eastwood, about how he speaks quietly so everyone has to pay close attention, so they have to lean in to hear what he’s saying. As Deloris Jordan, Davis wields that same power. From the first meeting she has with Sonny throughout the rest of the film, Deloris never raises her voice. Even when she’s clearly frustrated, she holds tight to that feeling for a moment before transforming it into something else, something calmer and more cutting than pure rage could ever achieve. Davis shows us this through a remarkably subtle physical performance, holding tension in her body for a split second before letting it evaporate. When she speaks, you feel compelled to lean closer.
Though a young Michael Jordan does make appearances in a few scenes, we never actually see his face. In part, this helps suspend our disbelief – the face of the real Michael Jordan is shown constantly throughout the film, a face so embedded in our culture it might feel strange to see an actor playing a younger version of him. But it also harkens back to the idea that this movie is not about Michael Jordan. It’s about the feeling that we get when we think about Michael Jordan – that punch your fist in the air, victorious euphoria transposed onto a brand new set of characters.