It’s hard to imagine a time when Nike was a plucky underdog in the basketball shoe wars. Then again, in hindsight, it’s also hard to believe that Michael Jordan was the third overall pick of the 1984 NBA draft.
Three years ago, many of us learned about the background story of the Air Jordan sneaker in The Last Dance. It was a partnership that changed sports, business, and pop culture. Air, featuring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, finds an engaging way to tell the tale of one of the most impactful deals ever made—the ramifications of which are still being felt today.
Turning a pitch meeting into a feature film is not easy. In the wrong hands, this could have gotten real boring real fast. But Affleck and Damon are a skilled, veteran tandem who know how to create an effective drama with tense conflicts, well-developed characters, and heartfelt moments. The craftsmanship shows in Air, which doesn’t waste the audience’s time. Directed by Affleck, it’s almost two hours long but feels like a breezy 90 minutes.
When normal life was on pause during the pandemic, many of us were starved for sports entertainment. Thankfully, The Last Dance gave us something to experience as a community. Among those who were watching was Air screenwriter Alex Convery. While in quarantine, he came up with the idea of turning the Nike pitch meeting into a movie. Producers Affleck and Damon molded Convery’s vision into one of the better movies of the year so far.
The story of how Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) got Jordan to sign with Nike, co-founded by Phil Knight (Affleck), is compelling. For a long time, Nike was known more as the preferred shoe of runners than hoopsters. There’s a good reason for that. Legendary University of Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman was one of the co-founders. But when Nike wanted to expand its market share in the basketball world it took a risk.
Back in 1984, Jordan was not the GOAT we know today. It took foresight and guts for Vaccaro to convince Knight that the rookie was the star to build an entire brand around. That’s the drama Affleck and Damon expertly capture in Air. At the root of it all, is a clash of egos. Damon portrays Vaccaro as a man so convinced of his vision that he fails to account for the consequences his actions might have for others. Meanwhile, Affleck’s Knight is more of a former maverick who has become cautious with age.
As good as they are, the supporting roles hold the movie together. In particular, Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother Deloris, and Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White shine. We expect the best from Davis who delivers the way an EGOT winner should. In Air, her interpretation of Deloris is warm yet extremely business savvy. From the relaxed first meeting between Vaccaro and her in North Carolina to a tense phone call near the end, you see why Davis is one of the best talents of her generation.
Tucker’s performance is more of a surprise. The character of Howard wasn’t even in the original script but was added due to the insistence of Jordan. In his first film role since 2016, Tucker provides more than occasional comic relief. He brings additional energy and has a way of connecting with his fellow costars that gives Air realism. Tucker probably deserved more screen time.
Air is a self-contained drama with many of the scenes taking place in office buildings. It could have been a theatrical play. However, it never feels stuffy. When there are no landscapes or set pieces, the actors must work much harder to keep you interested.
Affleck and Damon deserve applause for taking a big shot—and making it.