‘Air’ Movie Review: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon Team Up to Tell the Story of Michael Jordan’s Shoe Deal With Nike

Movie Review: Adequately titled “Air,” Ben Affleck’s newest directing effort sits in the clouds as it enjoys rummaging through the events that led to Michael Jordan’s lucrative “Air Jordan” shoe deal with Nike. Told from the perspective of blazing Sonny Vaccaro, “Air” enjoys living in the small details of nostalgia and sports branding.

Air Movie Review with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Viola Davis about the Michael Jordan shoe deal.

As a basketball fanatic (of the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, who as I’m writing continues to improve on the impressively bad track record of the last 20 years of Minnesota sports), I was clearly in the bag for Ben Affleck’s “Air” movie about the rise of the Jordan shoe and brand shortly after he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. Affleck’s career has been built by grindy, procedural works of helping people and finding results by any means necessary – the ends justify the means – and Sonny Vaccaro’s (Matt Damon) courting of the young basketball phenom fits handily into the mold.

But Ben Affleck’s directing career has always been about upping the anti and stakes with each new effort. From “Gone Baby Gone” exploring a dangerous neighborhood relegated to the bottom by city officials and the police force, to “Argo” traveling overseas in an attempt to bring back hostages on foreign soil. Each movie of Affleck’s feels like an expansion and response to the last, which makes “Air” all that more interesting as his latest film.

Yet when you actually sit down to watch “Air” and the opening moments blissfully bring you through casinos and the Nike headquarters, there aren’t many stakes at all. After winning the Oscar for “Argo” and subsequently plummeting with “Live by Night,” Ben Affleck has redirected his sights towards hazy, cool hangout flicks. It’s less about wondering whether or not Michael Jordan will sign with Sonny Vaccaro’s shoe brand (because we all know he will), and more about the increasing set of volatile characters that helps Vaccaro get there.

Matt Damon plays the basketball branding-savant Sonny Vaccaro in a role that has him leaning heavily into his bag of average Joe quips and murmurs. “Air” has been rightfully compared to “Moneyball” for their behind-the-scenes sports antics. Don’t expect the same screen presence between Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, but Damon still has a hold on the middle-aged, blazing visionary trying to win his way back in the industry.

Ben Affleck takes the back seat as Nike co-founder and president Phil Knight. Affleck tries to stay in the backseat for much of the movie’s runtime, but he continues to take over whenever he’s front and center. Knight has a Zen-ful aura that Affleck mines into at every chance he gets (he’s really laying it on thick with this performance, I kinda dig it).

The story progresses as these two industry heads try to use their limited budget to lure one of the NBA’s up-and-coming stars. Although Michael Jordan seems impossible for Nike at first, the movie works its way to Michael Jordan’s doorsteps and introduces the remarkable talent of Viola Davis, who channels it all in and gives a rather subdued performance than what we’re used to seeing from her. It works as the mother of Michael Jordan, as she’s asked to carry the weight of the family’s on-screen time in “Air.”

Which may be one of my biggest detracting pieces of “Air.” Viola Davis is capable of dragging this movie along, but the faux-absence of Michael Jordan is quite distracting during some of the pivotal scenes. The movie builds to some final pitch meetings, and Michael Jordan is put in the shadows for much of the unfolding conversations. It makes sense in the moment – Michael Jordan is a towering figure and putting someone in those shoes is a tough ask for an actor in his early 20s. It may also be that giving Jordan a character in “Air” may have shifted the focus from Vaccaro. Both are possible, but I find the solution to these questions perplexing and odd.

The pacing in “Air” is quite outstanding as it shifts quickly from introductions to courting Michael Jordan to developing the “Air Jordan” brand. Before you know it, we’re at the final meetings wrapping up one of the most lucrative deals in sports branding history. The movie puts it into perspective quite well as it chronicles how this deal paved the way for similar ones later down the line. It doesn’t play any of these developments too dramatic or heavy-handed, which adds to the good vibes all around.

“Air” doesn’t reinvent this subgenre of sports executives trying to revive their careers, but it does just enough to fit snuggly within it. Damon and Affleck shine as Sonny Vaccaro and Phil Knight, and the surrounding cast of Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, and Chris Messina (who steals every scene he’s in as MJ’s loudmouth agent David Falk giving his best Jason Clarke as Jerry West impression) delivers universally. If you’re even remotely interested in the story of “Air Jordan,” or just want to see something that isn’t “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” or “Renfield,” give it a shot.