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Review: ‘Air,’ Just Do It, Sonny

Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, and Ben Affleck star in an absorbing drama, directed by Ben Affleck. 

Kudos to Ben Affleck for starring in and directing the first movie I can recall that revolves entirely around … a shoe-endorsement deal. 

It’s not just any shoe, though, and it’s not just any athlete. To be precise, Air whisks the audience back to 1984 and the small circus that surrounded the signing of pre-G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) Michael Jordan, then an 18-year-old college freshman, and soon to be a professional basketball legend. 

In that ancient era — which Affleck and his production crew take pains to recreate lovingly, repeatedly, and incessantly — a pudgy, 40-something salesman named Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) relentless pursued the signing of Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal with Nike, then only the #3 shoe company in the world. Brought on by Nike’s founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to boost the basketball division, Sonny has proven to be unsuccessful in doing so and may be in danger of losing his job if he doesn’t improve the basketball division’s financial performance. 

A born gambler, Sonny bets everything on convincing Jordan to sign, even though the kid reportedly hates Nike and loves Adidas, the #1 shoe company in the world. (Converse lags at #2 and barely figures into the film.) In a desperately bold move, Sonny even flies to North Carolina in order to pay an impromptu visit on Michael’s parents, Deloris and Julius (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, husband and wife actors who are acting together in a film for the first time), bypassing Jordan’s irascible and incredibly foul-mouthed agent, David Falk (Chris Messina).

If all this sounds like a movie made for streaming, and not necessarily a traditional cinematic experience, it’s hard to disagree. Yet what makes the movie consistently absorbing — and, I would say, quite cinematic — are the marvelously low-key performances by Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker (?!), Matthew Maher, Ben Affleck and Viola Davis. 

Damon takes the lead as the persistent, never-say-die salesman who is convinced that he has seen early glimpses of a man who will become the greatest basketball player of all time, who also oozes charisma and confidence. Bateman and Tucker play Nike execs, with Maher as the nerdy genius shoe designer/engineer/artist, and Afflect as the genius barefoot executive Phil Knight, who is Weirdness Incarnate, yet also pretty relatable and surprisingly supportive. 

The film positions Michael Jordan as a god-like creature who has already soared beyond the confines of puny humans. With only a single line of dialogue, and without his in-person face being shown, it’s as though he emits beams of light that would blind anyone who foolishly dares to look upon his face. 

As silly as that may sound, it’s absolutely essential to the manner in which director Affleck tells the story. Everyone and everything in the movie revolves around a god-like creature. Everyone, though, knows this; they acknowledge that they are lowly people who don’t deserve to be in Michael Jordan’s presence, and will do anything to bask in his reflected light. 

What makes all this tolerable, and even charming, is that genuflection sounds and plays as genuine, authentic, and kind of funny, especially when you know how this all plays out. It’s a key, authorized chapter in the corporate lives of Nike and Michael Jordan, playing out to its finish like a warmly-remembered basketball game with an incredible buzzer-beater.

The film opens April 5 in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities, via Amazon Studios, ahead of its eventual global premiere on Prime Video. For more information about the film, visit the official site.