‘Air’ Review: Ben Affleck’s Underdog Story Soars Thanks to a Dynamite Cast

SXSW: The true-story film stars Matt Damon and Viola Davis and chronicles Nike’s quest to sign Michael Jordan

Amazon Studios

A sign of a great historical film is one that makes the audience forget they know how it will end. The ship isn’t going to stay afloat in “Titanic.” Woodward and Bernstein will figure out how to bust open the story of Watergate in “All the President’s Men.” King George will address the nation in “The King’s Speech.” But all those movies leave their viewers enthralled by the stories’ twists and dynamic characters, making the certainty of the outcome secondary to what they’re watching unfold. Director Ben Affleck’s “Air” never quite does that — mostly due to choices in the script and direction — but it controls enough of the audience’s attention and provokes enough wonderment to deliver a solidly entertaining two hours.

In 1984, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) oversees scouting basketball talent for Nike sponsorship. At the time, the sneaker company was primarily known as shoes for runners with its basketball division dwindling. Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), the VP of marketing, knows how close the entire department is to getting shut down by the company’s CEO, Phil Knight (Affleck). Vaccaro decides that they should bet the future of the basketball program — indeed the entire corporation itself — on one up and coming player who’s about to start his rookie season: Michael Jordan. Vaccaro must convince his bosses to go along with the plan as well as come up with a winning pitch to Michael’s agent (Chris Messina) and, more importantly, to Michael’s mom (Viola Davis).

“Air” soars in large part due to how its impressive ensemble of actors interacts with one another. Frequently hilarious, there’s an especially uproarious scene between Damon and Messina that will stay with audiences long after the credits have rolled. And while most of the cast is devoted to strong banter born on the back of tremendous chemistry, Damon and Davis are the two emotional centers around which the film revolves. Damon’s Vaccaro is the persistent dreamer making a massive bet that should never work and basically succeeds due to his passion and foresight. Davis, meanwhile, is rock solid as the no-nonsense mother of the man that everyone wants a piece of. That’s not to say she’s a dour presence in the movie, but her genuine love for her son comes through via an intuitive wisdom that aids in the protection of her child.

The performances are great across the board with each cast member delivering incredibly memorable turns. Chris Tucker as Howard White (another member of Nike staff) is a welcomed presence whose charm plays beautifully off the drier elements of Damon’s laconic comedy style. Julius Tennon (Davis’ real-life husband) exudes friendly warmth as Michael’s father who is clearly the softer touch of Michael’s parents, but nonetheless has his own reserve of strength and wisdom. Affleck’s mere appearance (very much exactly like his real-world counterpart) is funny, but it’s his alternating Zen approach and goofish ways that make for a terrific part of the larger cast. There isn’t a bad actor in the bunch, and they all find ways to really work as an ensemble without ever overshadowing each other.

Additionally, DP Robert Richardson’s cinematography isn’t flashy or full of lots of movement, instead using simple shot setups with changing focus to relay a lived-in quality for every scene. Much of the film’s color palette is the off-white and brown of a 1980s corporate office, with some minor excursions to greener pastures or more austere companies’ headquarters. This aesthetic by the cinematographer, greatly assisted by production designer François Audouy, buoys that grounded approach. Not only does the dialogue feel real between the characters but the settings all feel like real locations in which these people reside.

Amazon Studios

There is something intrinsically odd that Michael Jordan doesn’t really have any lines in “Air,” nor is he ever directly shown except out-of-focus or courtesy of stand-in Damian Delano Young. It can’t help but feel like the man at the center of this whole story is less a person deciding on his future and more of a commodity used in contract disputes between various factions. The fact that it’s a Black man absent from most of these scenes with white businessmen is a bit off-putting if one were to think about it long enough. At the SXSW premiere, Affleck said the exclusion of Michael Jordan as a character was because Jordan is such a singular person in history, and one for whom the actor/director has such reverence, that it would be odd to have anyone else step into the role. “Air” is ultimately about business decisions made by those most passionate about the situation, primarily Deloris and Sonny, but Jordan’s exclusion remains an odd choice in Alex Convery’s script and Affleck’s direction.

There are other stylistic choices that don’t work as well within “Air,” distancing itself from the audience. There are far too many needledrops of 1980s pop music that it becomes distracting when each scene has one to three different chart-topping hits just to remind people that it is, in fact, the 1980s. This constant reminder extends beyond the soundtrack and into various pieces of pop culture ephemera: Coleco handheld games, posters for era-relevant athletes and political figures, fashions, cars, and much more that all but scream “hey, remember the ‘80s?!?” This constant underlining of the decade leaks into the script itself with much of the humor being a reference to the fact that certain players never amounted to much in the NBA while others would go on to have illustrious careers on the court and in the booth. This barrage of winking references makes it hard to disappear into a story where the destination is not a foregone conclusion, instead reminding viewers that they know how it all ends.

And yet … “Air” is still an underdog story where the third-place basketball shoe company is competing for the most sought-after athlete in the world despite being outgunned. The charm of Affleck’s movie is that it’s hard not to get swept up in the trials and triumphs that this plucky band of marketing misfits experience on the long road to launching Air Jordans. It’s a testament to the performances and especially the chemistry between cast members that these sequences overcome the winking references and some odd style choices to still deliver engaging moments that viewers can’t help but laugh at and cheer. The tangible strength of Davis also lends a different type of energy to Deloris’ scenes, where it’s no longer the goofballs trying their best but a woman who refuses to let anyone decide the narrative of her son’s life. “Air” manages to bring these different tones together, occasionally even in the same scene, without ever feeling jarring or forced.

Affleck has made a feel-good procedural that hilariously and poignantly follows the story from the inception of Vaccaro’s idea watching game tape through to the product pitch in the boardroom with the future greatest athlete of all time. These types of movies aren’t made as much these days — the kinds of films that forego large effects and flashy performances for grounded characters made real through solid turns by the cast. The banter in Convery’s script is entertaining, but it’s truly the actors under Affleck’s excellent direction that makes “Air” feel like something special. It doesn’t nail every scene or sentiment; but when the film is good (which is often), it’s on fire.

“Air” opens exclusively in theaters on April 5 before later streaming on Prime Video.