From the moment the Dire Straits needle-drop hits in Air’s ultra-’80s opening montage, I knew I was in. Apple ads, WWE wrestling, Princess Diana, Reagan, and Trivial Pursuit pop in and out of frame as though director/star Ben Affleck opened a time capsule from the past. The film grain, retro outfits, soundtrack, and overall atmosphere harken back to a bygone age of movies.
Air, set in 1984, follows Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike’s head basketball scout, as he searches for the best NBA rookies to sponsor. Nike’s basketball division is a fledgling operation, far outpaced by Converse, Adidas, and Puma. Their shoes aren’t popular, and they only have $250,000 to fund sneaker deals between three rookies. That’s until Vaccaro finds his white whale: Michael Jordan. Drafted third overall and an Adidas fan, Jordan seems far outside of Nike’s reach. But despite the odds, Vaccaro has a feeling. What follows is an exceptionally compelling story of the business, negotiations, and family behind Air Jordan.
Matt Damon is characteristically charismatic and down-to-earth. Always easy to root for, Damon is the good-natured and dedicated employee companies dream of. At his side is Jason Bateman, in an earnest and hilarious turn as Marketing VP Rob Strasser. Bateman is mostly the straight man, pushing back on Vacarro’s risky decisions to great comedic effect. Ben Affleck and Viola Davis also give strong performances as Nike founder Phil Knight and Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mom. Davis in particular brings an emotional gravity to the picture. To her, “a shoe is just a shoe, until my son steps in it.”
Air feels homey; it’s the kind of breezy, feel-good movie built for a Sunday afternoon, like Argo, Moneyball, and We Bought a Zoo. There are stakes (relatively low) and setbacks (relatively small), but Air also conveys a more important meaning. Michael Jordan’s sneaker deal paved the way for athletes to receive equity ownership and a piece of the pie. Air stands as the first film by Affleck and Damon’s new production studio, Artists Equity, centered on giving crew members and below-the-line talent equal opportunity.
So far, it’s working. With a 20+ million dollar opening, Air signals the triumphant return of the mid-budget adult drama, a niche that Affleck and Damon first filled with Good Will Hunting. Is it essentially corporate propaganda? Sure. But Air is an entertaining, well-made, unbelievably watchable movie. In five years, when this is playing on HBO, your dad is gonna love it.