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‘Air’ review: Nike and Michael Jordan get their own ‘Moneyball’

By March 28, 2023No Comments4 min read

Directed by Ben Affleck and featuring a star-studded lineup, Air is a familiar sports drama that scores more than it misses.

Just in time for the end of March Madness, Ben Affleck returns to direct and co-star in Air: Courting a Legend, a light-hearted sports drama loosely based on the true story of how Nike and Michael Jordan came together in the 80s to change basketball history.

Michael Jordan himself never makes an appearance in the film outside of archival footage — and a body double we never the see the full face of — but his presence hovers over the entire film. We mainly follow Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, a disillusioned recruiter for Nike who specializes in securing basketball scholarships for their shoe line. It’s 1984, when Nike was still far down in market share compared to bigger competitors like Converse and most notably Adidas.

Air is certainly a movie that knows full well that its audience can see the future, which is our recent past and present, so it often plays up its meta-awareness for the sake of humor and a quick-moving script that doesn’t wander too far from the domain of Nike’s headquarters in Oregon. A wise choice for Affleck as director, who keeps the flash and over-indulgent flair to a minimum in favor of interesting conversations and a bumping soundtrack.

Amazon Studios

“I’m willing to bet my career on one guy.”

It’s certainly odd to see a version of Nike this young, humble, and scrappy, with Affleck playing Phil Knight, the eager co-founder and CEO at the time. Vaccaro comes to Phil with a bold idea to help their basketball business bounce back despite a lack of funds. Use their entire recruiting budget on just one player: Michael Jordan.

At this point, Jordan is only about to play his first-ever season with the Chicago Bulls, but Vaccaro sees what the audience already knows. That Jordan, a rookie who’s never stepped foot on an NBA court, is headed for greatness, and Nike has a chance to exploit-er-find the opportunity in basing an entire shoe line around his inevitably iconic persona. The only problem? Jordan hates Nike shoes and has his heart set on Adidas. Oh, and there about ten other problems that come Vaccaro’s way, like Jordan’s reptilian agent (Chris Messina) and protective parents who really call the shots (Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan and Julius Tennon as James Jordan).

Like the movie itself, however, Nike is staffed with persistent team players who will do whatever it takes to seal the deal. Jason Bateman plays Rob Strasser, the marketing guru who translates Vaccaro’s bold gamble into a conceivable pitch. Chris Tucker plays Howard White, a client liaison who would go on to become a personal friend of the real-life Jordan. And of course there’s Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, the eccentric inventor of the Air Jordan who’s given only a weekend to build the “greatest shoe ever made.”

Amazon Studios

The bottom line

In many ways, Air is a bit too schmaltzy and elbow-nudging for its own good, constantly mugging at the camera and reaching for emotional highs that look good in an Oscars reel but are expectedly quite awkward in context. But it’s such an unassuming and efficiently told story, penned by Alex Convery, hitting just 112 tight minutes that fly by like Jordan himself.

There’s a bit of a running gag about how it’s almost silly for a movie like this to even exist. A movie about a shoe? But of course it’s really about the person who stepped into that shoe, and the movie doesn’t try too hard to make it seem like this particular shoe is what created Jordan, rather than the other way around. If anything, it’s occasionally transparent about the nastiness of shoe business politics, even if it does put a hilariously charitable light on a company that looks nothing like it used to (not that the movie tries to avoid that fact, to be clear). It’s also important to keep in mind that Air leans far closer to fiction than not, and purposefully so.

It’s easy to view Air as another Moneyball. Another King Richard. Another layup of a four-quadrant movie that uses underdog storytelling in the low-stakes world of sports that at least feels high stakes. Because for those involved, when they had to make the final shot or lose everything, they went for it.

Air opens in theaters starting April 5. Watch the trailer here.

Featured image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

  • AIR - 7/10
Jon Negroni

Jon is one of the co-founders of InBetweenDrafts and our resident film editor. He also hosts the podcasts Cinemaholics, Mad Men Men, and Film Section. He doesn't sleep, essentially.

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