In 1984, Adidas was far and away the preferred shoe of basketball players with Converse trailing behind and Nike, preferred by joggers, dead last with only 17% of the market. With Nike’s basketball division head Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) intent on spreading his $250K budget among three rookies as Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) was contemplating cutting that budget altogether, their lead recruiter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) breaks all the rules to lay down a bet on the one player his gut insisted upon in “Air.”
Laura's Review: A-
While a story about a billion dollar company trying to beat its rivals might not sound like entertaining drama, writer Alex Convery and director Ben Affleck have turned it into a hugely crowd pleasing tale of David beats Goliath with innovation and chutzpah. Michael Jordan himself had a hand in making sure this would all work by insisting on the casting of Viola Davis as his mother, Deloris, the woman Sonny would deal with directly, infuriating Jordan’s dismissive agent David Falk (Chris Messina). Affleck’s given us something like “Jerry Maguire” without the romance crossed with “The Founder,” the (underrated) tale of mixer salesman Ray Kroc inspired by a burger drive-thru.
Affleck kicks off establishing both his Me Decade time period and its prevalent marketing with a montage featuring ‘Where’s the beef?,’ Cabbage Patch Dolls and Apple’s ground-breaking ‘1984’ commercial before introducing us to Sonny in Vegas laying it all on the line (he loses). Back in Beaverton, OR, at Nike Headquarters, Sonny shares his frustration about attracting talent with Howard White (Chris Tucker), who retorts that ‘Nike is a running shoe – you won’t ever see black people running 26 miles for nothing.’ In Strasser’s meeting, Sonny challenges other reps on every name they champion, then makes his bold proposal about betting it all on incoming rookie Michael Jordan, a known Adidas fan, to Knight. The CEO who brandishes a list of rules declaring Nike rule breakers above his desk protests that the board will never buy it. Sonny points out that Knight built his company by taking risks, but having gone public (against Sonny’s advice), is now too indebted to his P&L statement. Affleck keeps this all moving along to a nostalgic 80’s rock soundtrack.
Damon and Affleck are together again and it feels so good. Damon, who packed on some pounds for this role, fits into it so well he seems to just be playing himself, laughing in amusement as Falk sputters in fury on the other end of the phone or sincerely connecting with Deloris Jordan in mutual acknowledgement of her son’s towering talent. Damon’s final pitch to the Jordans in the film’s last act is a pre-made Oscar clip. Affleck goes the opposite route behind a wig of tight curls, occasional sunglasses and purple running togs to match his custom-painted grape Porsche, his Knight a man of ill timing and well aired feet and not at all how we imagine the real Affleck.
The expertly cast ensemble includes Jason Bateman giving us one impression of Strasser only to switch things up, deepening our understanding of his character (he’s got an Oscar clip of a speech here as well, describing how children instill caution). Tucker’s Howard is a fast-talking, gregarious realist. Cantabrigian Matthew Maher, who recently stole the film “Funny Pages,” plays Nike shoe designer Peter Moore as some sort of cloistered savant who not only came up with the Jordan logo but the line’s name. Messina is gut-splittingly funny heaping abuse on Sonny, then enjoying his predicted lot as being alone but rich. And, of course, there is Viola Davis, savvy, firm and committed to ensuring her son’s worth, beautifully supported by Julius Tennon as her more genial, easy-going husband. The film also stars Marlon Wayans as 1984 Olympic assistant coach George Raveling, Gustaf Skarsgård and Barbara Sukowa as the squabbling heirs to Adidas and Asanté Deshon as a 7/11 cashier Sonny bounces ideas off of. Damian Young literally stands in for Michael Jordan, who is only seen from behind.
Affleck, production designer François Audouy and cinematographer Robert Richardson keep us submerged in the world of marketing, a 7/11 a veritable temple to brightly lit, celebrity endorsed products, an Arthur Ashe tennis racket commercial Sonny’s light bulb moment. Sonny doesn’t enlist Jordan to sell Nikes, but sells Nike as the manifestation of Jordan’s image. ‘A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it,’ Sonny tells Jordan’s beaming mother, who will counter with another game changing business plan. With “Air,” which, surprisingly, is every bit as suspenseful as “Argo,” Affleck ups his game.
Amazon Studios releases "Air" in theaters on 4/5/23.