Every so often a really good “feel good” movie --- according to producer and star Matt Damon --- comes along. AIR is one of those!
David and I lived in Chicago during Michael Jordan’s reign with the Chicago Bulls. David and his buddies had season tickets for all of Jordan’s tenure. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend many times, too. And trust me when I state this --- there was nothing like it! The joy and excitement was always palpable at the Chicago Stadium, making the experience of being there unforgettable.
And though everyone was enthralled with Jordan’s basketball prowess, his unrelenting competitiveness and his charismatic smile, most were not familiar with the back story of THOSE NIKE SHOES. AIR tells that story and it’s very compelling.
Nike in 1984 is known for their running shoes. Its basketball division is flailing. They have no major basketball players wearing their shoes --- Adidas is the major shoe company for the NBA, followed by Converse. But Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), Nike’s basketball expert, is determined to change that.
He and Nike’s VP of Marketing, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), spend hours trying to figure out who they could convince to wear the Nike brand. Typically, the other shoe manufacturers line up multiple players per season, but Sonny has the bright idea of signing only one major star and he sets his sights on the incoming rookie, Michael Jordan, who is due to start for the Bulls.
Unable to prevail upon Michael’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), to arrange a meeting --- Jordan was already a huge Adidas fan --- Sonny goes straight to the main decision maker, Michael’s mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis). He flies to North Carolina and goes directly to their home, against the wishes of Falk, Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and his own advisor, Howard White (Chris Tucker).
Offering Mrs. Jordan sage advice, Sonny tells her what to expect when she, her husband, James (Julius Tennon), and Michael --- whom we only see from the side and back --- visit Adidas and Converse. She, alone, knows Michael’s full potential --- and his worth. So, it’s during their trip to Oregon that Deloris lays out what she expects in terms of a contract --- and, the rest, as they say, is history. Truly!
Directed by Affleck, with a superb screenplay from Alex Convery, AIR is spellbinding. From the first frame until the last, Affleck’s movie keeps the audience engaged and fascinated. We have become so used to so many athletes promoting their own brands and profiting from these deals, that we --- or most of us --- forget this all started with Jordan. Air Jordan, Michael’s shoe, has become so iconic and such a part of our culture. It’s hilarious to learn that Knight, the CEO of Nike, didn’t even like the name initially.
Davis, per usual, is amazing. Deloris’ quiet calm and steadfastness serve her well in her negotiations with Nike, and Davis is a master at getting those traits across. AIR isn’t a film about Michael Jordan, rather it’s a tribute to his mother and her love and dedication to her son. During the credits, we see an old clip of Michael speaking about his mother. It’s obvious how much he loves her and appreciates all she has done for him, especially when he states he’s 46 years old and she’s still parenting him!
Affleck and Damon have been friends --- and collaborators --- for many years. They are both phenomenal, but this is seriously one of Damon’s best performances. Sonny never gives up and Damon’s energy is worthy of that optimism. And he has splendid chemistry with Bateman. They have a few special scenes together, one in particular has Strasser confiding in Sonny regarding his young daughter --- it’s terrific.
This year --- 2023 --- looks to be a banner year in films. AIR has gotten the industry off to a running start --- pun intended.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Just to be clear, you do NOT have to be a fan of Michael Jordan or even like basketball to relish the excellence of AIR. But consider this. A company with only 17% market share in their basketball division had the courage and foresight to name a shoe after a young man who would eventually be named the greatest basketball player of all time. AIR is a film that must be seen.
You will not see Michael Jordan in this movie --- except for archival footage from his playing days. An actor named Damian Delano Young is credited with playing Jordan in the film, but we never see his full face. That’s because AIR is not about Michael. It’s about the genius of Sonny Vaccaro, Nike’s basketball expert and judge of talent, played brilliantly by Matt Damon. And it’s also about a mother who knows her son and will not be denied.
Vaccaro manages to persuade his peers and especially his boss and Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, who also directs) that they have to offer this untested player from the University of North Carolina all the money they had budgeted to sign NBA rookies. But it was NOT an easy sell.
One outstanding memory I have of this perfectly executed story lies in the video tape Vaccaro watches over and over and over again. It’s the moment at the end of the college championship game pitting UNC against Georgetown in 1982. Trailing by a point with seconds left, James Worthy, the Tarheels’ star player --- and future NBA Hall of Famer --- passes the ball to freshman Michael Jordan --- who drains the winning basket.
Vaccaro notes that it was clearly a planned play from legendary coach Dean Smith. Jordan never wavered when he received the pass but let the shot go immediately. Imagine trusting such a critical time in the ultimate college game to a freshman. Obviously, Dean Smith knew what he had in this up-and-coming star. And Vaccaro was convinced.
Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother, played by the incomparable Viola Davis, also recognized her son’s special gift. It is Deloris who proves to be a master negotiator, making her son and her family wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
Outstanding performances abound in AIR, especially Damon. Affleck plays the no-nonsense founder and CEO of Nike perfectly. Jason Bateman excels as Rob Strasser, the company’s VP of Marketing. Chris Messina is memorable as David Falk, Jordan’s hard-nosed and abrasive agent. And Chris Tucker plays Howard White, the frenetic advisor to Vaccaro and also a friend of Michael in real life. Smaller roles are handled by Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, who designed the Air Jordan shoe and Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, a Hall of Famer himself and Michael’s coach in the 1984 Olympics.
Affleck consulted with Michael prior to filming and MJ wanted White and Raveling to be part of the story. But above everything else, Michael insisted that Viola Davis play his mother. Since Affleck always wanted to work with Davis, this was NOT a hard sell.
The evolution of the Air Jordan shoe is presumably not widely known. But when Nike dared to sign MJ to what was a huge contract at the time, and the world flocked to buy Air Jordans a few years later, it propelled the company far past Adidas and Converse as the go-to brand for a basketball sneaker. It’s a fascinating story with a flawless script by Alex Convery and a wealth of talent supporting Affleck behind the scenes.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!