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2023, Drama/Sports, 1h 52m

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Critics Consensus

A fact-based drama that no one will dunk on, Air aims to dramatize events that changed the sports world forever -- and hits almost nothing but net. Read critic reviews

Audience Says

Ben Affleck and a terrific cast score with Air , which is much more entertaining than any movie about a long-ago business deal has any right to be. Read audience reviews

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Air   photos.

From award-winning director Ben Affleck, AIR reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then-rookie Michael Jordan and Nike's fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This moving story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son’s immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.

Rating: R (Language)

Genre: Drama, Sports

Original Language: English

Director: Ben Affleck

Producer: Ben Affleck , Matt Damon , David Ellison , Jesse Sisgold , Jon Weinbach , Madison Ainley , Jeff Robinov , Peter Guber , Jason Michael Berman

Writer: Alex Convery

Release Date (Theaters): Apr 5, 2023  wide

Release Date (Streaming): May 12, 2023

Box Office (Gross USA): $52.4M

Runtime: 1h 52m

Distributor: Amazon Studios

Production Co: Skydance Media, Amazon Studios, Mandalay Pictures, Artists Equity

Sound Mix: Dolby Digital

Aspect Ratio: Flat (1.85:1)

Cast & Crew

Sonny Vaccaro

Ben Affleck

Phil Knight

Jason Bateman

Rob Strasser

Viola Davis

Deloris Jordan

Chris Messina

Gustaf Skarsgård

Horst Dassler

Marlon Wayans

George Raveling

Chris Tucker

Howard White

Jessica Green

Katrina Sainz

Peter Moore

Julius Tennon

James Jordan

Alex Convery


David Ellison

Jesse Sisgold

Jon Weinbach

Madison Ainley

Jeff Robinov

Peter Guber

Jason Michael Berman

Dana Goldberg

Executive Producer

Don Granger

Kevin Halloran

Michael Joe

Drew Vinton

John Graham

Peter E. Strauss

Jordan Moldo

Robert Richardson


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“Air” bristles with the infectious energy of the man at its center: Sonny Vaccaro, who’s hustling to make the deal of a lifetime.

Of course, we know from the start that the former Nike executive succeeded: Michael Jordan became a superstar and arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the game. And the Air Jordan, the shoe that gives the film its title, became the best-known and most-coveted sneaker of all time.

So how do you tell a story to which we already know the outcome? That’s where the deceptive brilliance of Ben Affleck ’s directing lies. His fifth feature is much in the same vein as the previous movies he’s helmed: “ Gone Baby Gone ,” “ The Town ,” “ Argo ” (which earned him a best-picture Oscar) and “Live By Night.” He makes the kind of solid, mid-budget movies for grown-ups that are far too rare these days. Affleck emphasizes strong writing, veteran performers and venerable behind-the-scenes craftspeople. His choice in cinematographer, longtime Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson , is a prime example.

With “Air,” it all comes together in an enormously entertaining package—one that’s old-fashioned but also alive and crowd-pleasing. Working from a sharp and snappy script by Alex Convery , Affleck tells the story of how Nike nabbed Jordan by creating a shoe that wasn’t just for him but of him—the representation of his soon-to-be iconic persona in a form that made us feel as if we, too, could reach such heights. This probably makes “Air” sound like a two-hour sneaker commercial. It is not. If you love movies about process, about people who are good at their jobs, then you’ll find yourself enthralled by the film’s many moments inside offices, conference rooms, and production labs.

The interactions within those mundane spaces make “Air” such a joy, starting with the reteaming of Affleck and Matt Damon . It’s a blast watching these longtime best friends, co-stars, and co-writers playing off each other again, provoking and cajoling, more than a quarter century after “ Good Will Hunting .” Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike recruiting expert who recognized the young North Carolina guard as a once-in-a-generation talent and pursued him relentlessly to keep him from Converse and Adidas cooler brands. Affleck is Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight, an intriguing mix of Zen calm and corporate arrogance. He walks around the office barefoot, yet he drives a Porsche he insists is not purple but rather grape in hue. Vaccaro, as his friend and colleague from the company’s earliest days, is the only one who can speak truth to power, and the affection and friction of that camaraderie shine through.

The year is 1984 (boy, is it ever—more on that in a minute), and Nike’s basketball division is an afterthought within the Oregon-based running shoe company. Nike is also an also-ran among its competitors. Vaccaro, a doughy, middle-aged bulldog in various puddy-colored Members Only jackets (the on-point work of costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones ), knows Jordan can change all that, and most “Air” consists of him convincing everyone around him of that notion. That includes director of marketing Rob Strasser ( Jason Bateman , whose mastery of dry, rat-a-tat banter is the perfect fit for this material); player-turned-executive Howard White (an amusingly fast-talking Chris Tucker ); Jordan’s swaggering agent, David Falk ( Chris Messina , who nearly steals the whole movie with one hilariously profane telephone tirade); and finally, Jordan’s proud and protective mother, Deloris ( Viola Davis , whose arrival provides the film with a new level of weight and wisdom). Character actor Matthew Maher , who always brings an intriguing presence to whatever film he’s in, stands out as Nike’s idiosyncratic shoe design guru, Peter Moore.

“Air” is a timeless underdog story of grit, dreams, and moxie. In that spirit, Vaccaro delivers a killer monologue at a crucial moment in hopes of sealing the deal with Jordan (whom Affleck shrewdly never shows us full-on—he remains an elusive idea, as he should be, but an intoxicating bit of crosscutting reveals the legacy he’ll leave over time). Still, Affleck very much hammers home the fact that we are in the mid-1980s. Sometimes, the evocation of this period comes in subtle and amusing ways, as in a throwaway joke about Kurt Rambis that made me chuckle. (You don’t have to know anything about basketball in general or this era in particular to enjoy the film, but there are many extra pleasures if you do.) More often, though, Affleck aims to create nostalgia with nearly wall-to-wall needle drops and overbearing pop culture references. As if the lengthy opening montage consisting of Cabbage Patch Kids, Hulk Hogan , the “Where’s the Beef?” ad, President Reagan, Princess Diana, and more weren’t enough, he randomly throws in a Rubik’s Cube or a stack of Trivial Pursuit cards as a transitional device. And the soundtrack of ‘80s hits is such a constant it becomes distracting, from the Violent Femmes and Dire Straits to Cyndi Lauper and Chaka Khan to a truly baffling use of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” as Knight is simply pulling into the Nike parking lot.

Still, this is a minor quibble about a movie that, for the most part, is as smooth and reliable as one of Jordan’s buzzer-beating, fadeaway jumpers.

Now playing on Prime today, May 12th.

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .

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Film credits.

Air movie poster

Rated R for language throughout.

112 minutes

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight

Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser

Marlon Wayans as George Raveling

Chris Messina as David Falk

Chris Tucker as Howard White

Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan

Julius Tennon as James Jordan

Damian Young as Michael Jordan

Matthew Maher as Peter Moore

Gustaf Skarsgård as Horst Dassler

Barbara Sukowa as Kathy Dassler

Jay Mohr as John Fisher

  • Ben Affleck
  • Alex Convery


  • Robert Richardson
  • William Goldenberg

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  • User reviews

Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, and Viola Davis in Air (2023)

Follows the history of sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, and how he led Nike in its pursuit of the greatest athlete in the history of basketball, Michael Jordan. Follows the history of sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, and how he led Nike in its pursuit of the greatest athlete in the history of basketball, Michael Jordan. Follows the history of sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, and how he led Nike in its pursuit of the greatest athlete in the history of basketball, Michael Jordan.

  • Ben Affleck
  • Alex Convery
  • Jason Bateman
  • 421 User reviews
  • 270 Critic reviews
  • 73 Metascore
  • 5 wins & 47 nominations

Big Game Spot

  • Sonny Vaccaro

Jason Bateman

  • Rob Strasser

Ben Affleck

  • Phil Knight

Chris Messina

  • Deloris Jordan

Julius Tennon

  • James Jordan

Damian Delano Young

  • Michael Jordan
  • (as Damian Young)

Chris Tucker

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Matthew Maher

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Gustaf Skarsgård

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Barbara Sukowa

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  • Trivia Though Michael Jordan was not directly involved in the film, Ben Affleck consulted him numerous times to get details on how to accurately portray the story. According to Affleck, Jordan's only two requests were that Viola Davis play his mother and that his longtime friend Howard White be included in the film. Affleck always wanted to work with Chris Tucker , so he was cast as White. Tucker was also friends with White, and Affleck gave him a lot of flexibility for his performance.
  • Goofs The "Just Do It" slogan didn't come out until 1987. It was created in 1987 by Wieden + Kennedy to accompany Nike's first major television campaign, which included commercials for running, walking, cross-training, basketball and women's fitness.

Sonny Vaccaro : [to Michael Jordan] Forget about the shoes, forget about the money. You're going to make enough money, it's not going to matter. Money can buy you almost anything, it can't buy you immortality. That, you have to earn. I'm going to look you in the eyes and I'm gonna tell you the future. You were cut from your high school basketball team. You willed your way to the NBA. You're gonna win championships. It's an American story, and that's why Americans are gonna love it. People are going to build you up, and God are they going to, because when you're great and new, we love you. Man, we'll build you up into something that doesn't even exist. You're going to change the fucking world. But you know what? Once they've built you as high as they possibly can, they're gonna tear you back down - it's the most predictable pattern. We build you into something that doesn't exist, and that means you have to try to be that thing all day, every day. That's how it works. And we do it again, and again, and again. And I'm going to tell you the truth. You're going to be attacked, betrayed, exposed and humiliated. And you'd survive that. A lot of people can climb that mountain. It's the way down that breaks them, 'cause that's the moment when you are truly alone. And what would you do then? Can you summon the will to fight on, through all the pain, and rise again? Who are you Michael? That will be the defining question of your life. And I think you already know the answer, and that's why we're all here. A shoe is just a shoe until somebody steps into it. Then it has meaning. The rest of us just want a chance to touch that greatness. We need you in these shoes not so you have meaning in your life, but so that we have meaning in ours. Everyone at this table will be forgotten as soon as our time here is up - except for you. You're gonna be remembered forever, because some things are eternal. You're Michael Jordan, and your story is gonna make us want to fly.

  • Connections Featured in CBS News Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley: Episode #45.26 (2023)
  • Soundtracks Money for Nothing Written by Mark Knopfler , Sting (as Gordon Matthew Sumner) Performed by Dire Straits Courtesy of Warner Records By arrangement with Warner Music Group Film & TV Licensing

User reviews 421

  • emiraktel-2710
  • Mar 18, 2023
  • How long is Air? Powered by Alexa
  • April 5, 2023 (United States)
  • United States
  • Los Angeles, California, USA
  • Amazon Studios
  • Artists Equity
  • Mandalay Pictures
  • See more company credits at IMDbPro
  • $90,000,000 (estimated)
  • $52,460,106
  • $14,456,279
  • Apr 9, 2023
  • $90,060,106

Technical specs

  • Runtime 1 hour 51 minutes
  • Dolby Digital

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‘air’ review: ben affleck’s ode to michael jordan is affectionate and involving, even when it fails to convince.

The 'Argo' actor/director stars alongside Matt Damon and Viola Davis in this feature about the creation of Nike's Air Jordan shoe.

By Lovia Gyarkye

Lovia Gyarkye

Arts & Culture Critic

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Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in 'Air'

Ben Affleck ’s Air operates in a respectful and deeply reverential register when it comes to its subject, his family and the sport in which he made his legacy. The film, which premiered at SXSW , chronicles the tense Nike campaign to sign Michael Jordan, then an NBA rookie, to his first sneaker deal in 1984. That contract, closed a year before the first Air Jordans were sold to the public, changed Nike’s reputation and altered the way players negotiated brand deals.

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For most audiences, Air will be worth seeing just for the starry cast — particularly the reunion between Damon and Affleck. Their scenes possess a kinetic and intimate dynamism that the rest of the film approaches but doesn’t always match. The old friends are magnetic as Sonny — who’s in charge of the company’s flailing basketball division — and Phil try to take Nike to the next level. (Before signing Jordan, the shoe company held a meager 17 percent of the market compared to competitors Adidas and Converse.) Their conversations take place in Phil’s appropriately retro office (the production design is by François Audouy) and offer insights into how both executives tried to balance the imagination of Nike’s scrappy roots alongside its corporate ambitions.

Phil and Sonny’s divergent ideologies come to a head when Sonny proposes putting all of the fledgling division’s money on Michael Jordan. The boss disagrees, and he’s not the only skeptic. His colleagues Howard White (Chris Tucker), Rob Strasser ( Jason Bateman ) and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), one of Jordan’s coaches at the 1984 Olympics, all try to dissuade him. The dynamics within this group of coworkers and friends offer most of the film’s comedic relief while also helping us deepen our understanding of Nike’s philosophy. When they are later joined by Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), Nike’s creative director, the film applies — wonderfully — the poetic reverence usually reserved for portraying the sport in these types of dramas to the process of designing a shoe.

Sonny isn’t one to take no for an answer or ignore his instincts. After a crucial call with Jordan’s agent, David Falk (a hilarious Chris Messina ), Sonny flies from Oregon to North Carolina to court Jordan’s parents. Deloris (Davis) and James (Julius Tennon) turn out to be a tougher crowd than Sonny anticipated. They are immune to his salesman charm and unfazed by his dramatic entrance onto their property. Deloris, especially, demands a quiet respect, which Sonny, in awe, gives her.

And those experiences matter. Sonny and Deloris are bound by a profound and unwavering belief in Jordan, but, as she suggests during one conversation, his strong sense of self is a product of the lessons she has taught him. It’s Deloris’ and her son’s understanding of their worth that leads them to negotiate a contract giving Jordan a percentage of the revenue from Air Jordan sales.

Beneath the sentimentalism of Air are hints of an even more compelling thread: How do you compensate people in a society organized around corporate greed? The film’s third act highlights and circles the notion of equity. Jordan’s contract changed the way players made money from brand deals. A note right before the closing credits informs us that Sonny would play a critical role in taking on the N.C.A.A. and helping college athletes get paid for commercial use of their likeness. All of this feels prescient considering Affleck’s recent venture: Last year, he and Damon started Artists Equity , a production company that operates on a profit-sharing model in hopes of creating better deals for everyone employed to make movies. It makes Air feel like a letter of admiration — to Jordan, his family, the tenacious execs at Nike — and a statement of Affleck’s future intentions.

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‘Air’ Review: Director Ben Affleck Shoots and Scores with His Biographical Sports Drama

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Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Amazon Studios releases the film in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.

Today, there are 37 different variations of Air Jordan models available. From the basketball court to the streets and even the catwalk, the Nike sneakers have become a staple of American culture. Director Ben Affleck ’s “Air” invites audiences into Nike headquarters to experience the story behind the popular shoe that was built solely for the legendary athlete for which it is named: Michael Jordan.

Set in 1984, Affleck stars as Nike founder Phil Knight. An ambitious, rebellious, and passionate leader who likes to live by — and reiterate — Douglas McArthur’s famous quote “you are remembered for the rules you break,” Knight thrived on taking risks. During this time, Nike was not as successful as its competitors Adidas and Converse, and their NBA division was struggling to sign an athlete to sponsor their gear. Nike’s basketball guru in charge of changing that slump was Sonny Vaccaro (played in the film by Matt Damon ). As the Nike board began questioning the relevance of his position at Nike, Vaccaro sought to do something wild: sign Chicago Bulls’ rookie Michael Jordan to literally change the game for Nike and marketing a brand at large.

Affleck’s directing style is on point, with several aerial and close-up shots that allow the actors to really shine. He also includes old footage from famous commercials, music videos, and sports games to set the stage for the era audiences are about to revisit or enter for the first time. Interludes of quotes from Nike’s 10 principles also help viewers to understand the ethos of the dedicated company employees, many of which are fans and former athletes or runners themselves. For example, “our business is change,” “we’re on offense, all the time,” and “if we do the right things we’ll make money damn near automatic,” are shown throughout the film. Several references to the company’s history are mentioned throughout the film’s 1 hour and 52 minute running time and potentially could have been pulled from Knight’s inspirational memoir “Shoe Dog.”

In order to sign Jordan, Vaccaro has to go through Michael’s arrogant agent David Falk (hilariously played by Chris Messina). The competitive banter between Vaccaro and Falk comprise some of the best comedic scenes in the film and will have audiences rolling thanks to writer Alex Convery’s smart script. While Falk is primarily concerned with financial gain, Vaccaro’s approach to their corporate competition is to go around Jordan’s agent and approach his parents face-to-face, a bold approach viewed as unprofessional by his colleagues. Driving to North Carolina, Vaccaro meets James R. Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) in an attempt to win them over.  

As the Nike crew prepares for the big pitch to the Jordan family, audiences are introduced to the other key players. Jason Bateman stars as Rob Strasser, VP of Marketing, and Chris Tucker as Howard White, the man who eventually became VP of the Jordan Brand for Nike. Bateman brings a cautionary yet supportive approach to Strasser, while Tucker’s vibrant and electric energy breaks through and captivates the Jordans as White. Each actor’s performance in “Air” is a phenomenal in their own right and they work like a team to create one of the most engaging buisness success stories in history on screen.  

air movie review metacritic

Cinematographer Robert Richardson captures initial scenes with a grainy haze synonymous with old school VHS tapes one would use to record games back in the ‘80s. As the image clears throughout the film, Richardson is able to counterbalance the vintage set design courtesy of production designer François Audouy extremely well. Shoe dogs and sneaker heads will enjoy several Easter eggs in the Nike office including newspaper clippings from Nike’s original Blue Ribbon days and several artifacts from Knight’s international travels.

Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones does an amazing job conveying the times and showcasing all of the vintage Nike clothing worn by the staff. This creative team behind the camera excels at immersing audiences into the business world of the ‘80s while also playing on the modern day love of nostalgia.  

The decision to not have an actor play Michael Jordan was wise. Affleck clearly took a great amount of care with this project by respecting the legend and his loving family. He consulted with Jordan to get his blessing on the film, receive any input, and honor Jordan’s condition to have the supreme Viola Davis play his mother. While many may assume “Air” is about the game or MJ himself, it is actually about the underdogs of Nike creating a brand that was revolutionary for the times. Before Air Jordans, there had not been a marketing strategy to this degree. As Strasser says, “a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.”  

Another impactful aspect of the film is how the story becomes about family. Davis brings such a large amount of warmth and strength to playing Deloris Jordan, a woman who knew her son’s worth and fought for him to get his share of the pie. Subtle yet stern, her performance evokes such empathy and class as Deloris navigates the business deals proposed to her and her adoring husband. On several occasions, her presence on screen has the tendency to give audiences goosebumps because of just how perfectly she honors Mrs. Jordan and how she carries herself knowing that her son is a legend whose impact to the game will be forever lifechanging. It’s all quite beautiful.  

Each actor in Affleck’s latest film gives a powerful and awards-worthy performance. “Air” is a slam dunk and ultimately one of the best sports movies ever made. Affleck successfully captures Nike’s heartwarming and hilarious marketing   journey while paying respectful homage to all involved. “Air” is a tremendous underdog story filled with lovable characters. It’s truly a film about legends made by legends.  

“Air” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.

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Air - Variety Critic's Pick

Americans spend tens of billions of dollars on basketball sneakers every year. Sure, everybody needs shoes, but it shouldn’t matter if your choice bears the Nike swoosh, Adidas’ three stripes or the Converse star. So why does it? In most cases, consumers aren’t simply buying footwear; they’re investing in the fantasy of walking in someone else’s shoes, be it a sports star or a personal idol, and the promise that switching one’s kicks has a direct impact on your potential for greatness.

Instead, “Air” ought to be taken as the ultimate example of the American dream, a funny, touching Cinderella story about how the third-place sneaker brand wished upon a star, and how that man — and his mother — were smart enough to know their value. “Air” reveals how an exceptional Black athlete leveraged his talent — and the power of being pursued by a bunch of white men in suits — to change the game. Not just basketball, but the whole field of celebrity endorsements. It’s remarkable and fitting that Affleck focuses these negotiations not on Michael Jordan but the woman he trusted most, his own personal “King Richard”: mother Deloris (Viola Davis).

In a sly move, Affleck casts himself as Knight, playing the OG “shoe dog” as a comic figure with an ill-fitting wig and an aloof sense of timing. Most corporate CEOs step on other people’s sentences, butting in before their underlings have finished speaking, but not this guy. He waits a beat before responding, as if his attention might be divided between the conversation at hand and a dozen other thoughts. On the wall of Phil’s office hangs a giant sign listing the 10 rules by which Nike operates. Rule No. 2 reads, “Break the rules.” But in 1984, Nike was a publicly traded company, and boards expect rules to be observed.

Enter Sonny, Nike’s in-house basketball guru, whom “Air” introduces as a betting man: He stops by Vegas after a scouting trip, and loses it all on craps. But it’s more than a hunch that tells him Nike should invest its entire quarter-million-dollar basketball marketing budget on one player, as opposed to spreading it among several lower-ranked draft picks. Never mind that Jordan is an Adidas guy; forget that the German company (at which “Air” takes a few sharp digs) can outspend anything Nike offers.

Jordan’s genius on the court practically goes without saying, and yet screenwriter Alex Convery shrewdly decodes the 21-year-old’s potential, spelled out after Sonny studies tape of Jordan’s first year on the University of North Carolina’s team. This and other key moments play like classic Aaron Sorkin scenes, blending the inside-baseball insights of “Moneyball” with “The Social Network”-style power games. His characters aren’t quite as compelling as Sorkin’s, but they express themselves beautifully. Between nostalgia-baiting ’80s radio hits, they walk and talk strategy (around production designer François Audouy’s great sets) or else cut one another down in private (as old friends Damon and Affleck do at several points).

In the film’s most galvanizing monologue, Sonny finally gives Jordan (whose face appears only in archival footage) and his parents (Davis and Julius Tennon) the pitch. Who knows what Sonny really said in that room, but this speech — intercut with the triumphs and pitfalls of Jordan’s career — summarizes everything Michael Jordan means to us, his fans and the legions of Americans he inspired. To get to this moment, Sonny must first convince Phil to endorse his plan; he has to deal with Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, hilariously hostile); and he has to drive out and face Deloris in person.

Casting Davis was the smartest thing Affleck could have done, as the EGOT winner is to acting what Jordan is to sports: Her strength inspires, and she can move us to tears while making it look easy. We all know what happened with the Air Jordan deal — more than Adidas’ early-’70s Stan Smith alliance, the shoe launched our now-ubiquitous sneaker culture — and yet, Deloris forces Sonny to work for the family’s approval.

Memorable parts by Chris Tucker as Howard White, who traded his basketball uniform for a corporate suit, and Marlon Wayans as 1984 Olympics coach George Raveling notwithstanding, “Air” often seems to be focused on the whitest guys in the room. But Affleck is hardly blind to the racial dynamics underlying the whole saga, revealing how Deloris ensured that corporate America couldn’t exploit her son.

Then as now, Nike’s shoes weren’t necessarily any more stylish or advanced than its competitors’ — although the original Air Jordans are a thing of beauty. The company’s sneakers owed nearly all of their mystique to the athletes who wore them. In 1984, Michael Jordan was still a rookie, destined to become a legend. The novelty of “Air” comes in trying to imagine Nike as the underdog, given what the brand has become, but that’s as fine a place as any for a sports movie to begin.

Reviewed at SXSW (Closing Night), March 18, 2023. MPA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

  • Production: An Amazon Studios release of an Amazon Studios, Skydance Sports presentation of an Artists Equity, Mandalay Pictures production. Producers: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, David Ellison, Jesse Sisgold, Jon Weinbach, Madison Ainley, Jeff Robinov, Peter Guber, Jason Michael Berman. Executive producers: Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Kevin Halloran, Michael Joe, Drew Vinton, John Graham, Peter E. Strauss, Jordan Moldo.
  • Crew: Director: Ben Affleck. Screenplay: Alex Convery. Camera: Robert Richardson. Editor: William Goldenberg. Music supervisor: Andrea von Foerster.
  • With: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, Viola Davis, Matthew Maher, Julius Tennon.

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Review: Ben Affleck’s entertaining Michael Jordan-Nike drama is more than hot ‘Air’

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One of the pleasures of the movies is the way they can complicate and undermine the idea of history as destiny, taking unbeatable sure things and reminding us that they were once untested, unknown quantities. It’s not, admittedly, the easiest thing for a filmmaker to pull off. Too often the clarity of hindsight can become the enemy of real drama; the more phenomenal the legend, the more inevitable and even circumscribed their success can seem. There’s a moment near the end of “Air,” Ben Affleck’s shrewd, hugely enjoyable and fitfully ruminative new movie, that deftly gets at this point, when a basketball fan opines that “everybody knew” from the beginning that Michael Jordan would be an all-timer — never mind that, sometime earlier, said fan could be heard declaring precisely the opposite.

Not that “Air” treats Jordan as some kind of underdog, or even as its central subject. An NBA rookie when the movie opens, he’s already marked for greatness — a greatness of such untouchable, godlike proportions that, beyond some TV footage of the real Jordan on the court, the movie dares not even show his face. (Damian Delano Young, the actor who plays him, appears only briefly and is almost always filmed from behind.) No, the truer underdog here — and the other legend in the making — is Nike, the upstart Oregon-based footwear company with the swoosh logo, the “just do it” slogan and an initially lackluster profile in the basketball sneaker market. That last part will change forever, of course, once Nike manages, through a campaign of extraordinary savvy and daring, to outbid and outmaneuver its deeper-pocketed rivals, Adidas and Converse, and hitch its own fortunes to Jordan’s meteoric rise.

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Boasting a punchy, phone-slamming, expletive-hurling, heavily Aaron Sorkin-indebted script by Alex Convery, “Air” is an ode to the art of the landmark celebrity-endorsement deal . It’s also something of a feature-length Nike commercial, albeit a deft and entertaining one. Mostly, it’s a tribute to classically American values like branding and publicity, ambition and swagger, wealth and more wealth (the Air Jordan line has earned billions and counting) and good, old-fashioned competitive cunning. Like “Argo” (2012), Affleck’s Oscar-winning hit about how Hollywood helped rescue six Americans amid the turmoil of the Iran hostage crisis, the movie dusts off decades-old headlines and invests them with the breezy urgency of a comic heist thriller, one with far lower human stakes but an incalculably higher payout. The year may be 1984, but any hint of Orwellian gloom here is dissolved in a wave of merry capitalist brinkmanship.

A businessman with his bare feet on his desk

The mastermind is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, paunchy and polo-shirted), the sharpest, most stubborn mind in Nike’s flailing basketball division. Possessed of a keen understanding of the game and its players, he also has a gambler’s streak that loses him more than it earns. (His talent-scouting trips tend to detour through Las Vegas, where the script establishes his risky impulses and drops a sly beaut of a Kurt Rambis joke.) It’s Sonny who grasps and articulates the singularity of Jordan’s brilliance a few crucial beats before everyone else does. And it’s Sonny who argues that Nike, rather than dividing its annual $250,000 basketball budget among three or four lower-ranked players, should offer the whole pot to Jordan and tailor an entire shoe line to the athlete, rather than the other way around. (Matthew Maher, so good in last year’s “Funny Pages,” steals a few scenes as Nike shoe wizard Peter Moore, who designs the Air Jordan in all its prototypical Chicago Bulls red-and-black glory.)

It’s a potentially game-changing proposition — and a potentially business-killing gamble. Sonny has a lot of skeptics to convince, including Jordan, a die-hard Adidas fan, and (more importantly) Jordan’s mother, Deloris, the solid rock and gently guiding hand behind his every career move. Deloris is played, superbly, by Viola Davis, whose soft-toned, gravel-edged voice is authority itself. (In a nice touch, Davis’ husband, Julius Tennon , plays Michael’s father, James Jordan.) Two of the movie’s most beautifully written and played scenes find Sonny approaching and later negotiating with a thoughtful, quietly unyielding Deloris, setting the pattern for a story in which nearly every turning point is structured as a two-way conversation — a one-on-one master class in the art of persuasion.

Gallardo, Alex –– – LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 12, 2008. One of the coveted Honus Wagner baseball cards is at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles that the world will see in November 18, 2008 that houses one of the largest collections of sports memorabilia, from baseball to basketball, football, golf and other sports shot Wednesday Nov. 12, 2008 at Main Street and Washington Blvd .(Alex Gallardo/Los Angeles Times)

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Sonny’s many sparring partners include Jordan’s potty-mouthed agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, a scream), and Nike’s good-natured but beaten-down marketing director, Rob Strasser (an effective Jason Bateman). Strasser gets a poignant if overly calculated heart-tugger of a speech that kicks “Air’s” already solid dad-movie cred up several notches; he also gets one of the script’s few moments — an oblique reference to Nike’s use of Asian sweatshop labor — that puncture the feel-good corporate vibes.

Most of those vibes emanate from the company’s affable, Zen-minded CEO, Phil Knight, a wearer of track suits and spouter of Buddhist koans played by Affleck himself as the risk-averse yin to Sonny’s reckless yang. Unsurprisingly, the well-worn Matt-and-Ben screen rapport gives Sonny and Phil an instantly readable, affectionately combative dynamic, as well as an understated emotional core.

A man in a suit gesticulates in his office

It’s not the only time Affleck uses casting to suggestive, even subversive ends. On the surface, “Air” may look like an unrepentant valentine to the ’80s, from the amusing overkill of its extended opening montage (President Reagan and Princess Diana , Ghostbusters and Cabbage Patch Kids) to its steady stream of Violent Femmes/Cyndi Lauper/Bruce Springsteen needle drops to the simultaneously spot-on and comically exaggerated ugliness of its offices, all dim greenish lighting and chunky computer hardware. (The grubbily ancient production design is by François Audouy, the cubicle-panning cinematography by Robert Richardson.) But in some ways, the movie is also carrying on a subliminal, more subtly nostalgic conversation with the ’90s , the decade that transformed Affleck and Damon into household names and saw some of their key supporting players here first rise to prominence.

The latter include Marlon Wayans, delivering a charming cameo as George Raveling, the Olympic basketball coach who would prove instrumental in persuading Jordan to sign with Nike; and Chris Tucker , funneling his motormouthed comic gusto into the smart suit and warm, welcoming vibes of Howard White, the future vice president of the entire Jordan brand. In ways that sometimes register more potently than the action or dialogue, “Air” is haunted by the specters of these actors’ career highs and lows; this is Tucker’s first movie in seven years. It’s also haunted by the sight of Affleck and Damon, two aging Hollywood golden boys who at times seem to be confronting their own mortality alongside their characters. They’ve made a movie about the ravages of time, the fleeting, sometimes arbitrary nature of fame and the general rule of failure to which success proves an all-too-rare exception.

This meta-melancholy subtext rises to the surface late in the movie, when Sonny delivers a deal-clinching, throat-tightening boardroom speech about how few legacies endure and how few legends are remembered. It’s a message that consoles and stings, not least for the way it seems to knock even movie royalty down a few pegs. Success and fame on the level of a Michael Jordan, Sonny reminds us, has a way of throwing even great accomplishments into perspective.

A man in conversation at a bar

“Air” comes by these ideas honestly and thoughtfully, and they’re rich enough that you sometimes wish Affleck and Convery had given them freer, unrulier reign, rather than shoehorning them (so to speak) into all the story’s busily, efficiently moving parts, its blue Slurpee sight gags and Adidas-skewering Hitler jokes. Crucially, it’s in the scenes with Wayans, Tucker and Davis that the movie engages meaningfully, if too briefly, with the role of race in the overlapping arenas of sports, celebrity and social progress, and especially the question of what Black athletes are owed by an industry that uses their names, likenesses and talent to invest a product with meaning.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Deloris who brings these issues to the fore — and also cuts through them with clean, unerring logic — when she argues for a fundamental shift in the balance of power between her son and Nike, and by extension between all athletes and the companies seeking to trade on their fame. The movie is on her side — or rather, it pivots to her side at just the right moment, pulling the rug out from under Sonny and his colleagues and also, perhaps, from under itself. In these earnest, cheer-worthy moments, “Air” almost convinces you that it’s more than just a feel-good celebration of capitalism and corporate power, that it has its eye not just on the prize but on the entire game — and that it’s looking out for all the underdogs as fervently as it wants you to believe.


Rating: R, for language throughout Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes Playing: Starts Wednesday in general release

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air movie review metacritic

Justin Chang was a film critic for the Los Angeles Times from 2016 to 2024. He is the author of the book “FilmCraft: Editing” and serves as chair of the National Society of Film Critics and secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

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Air Review - IGN Image

Air premieres in theaters on April 5, 2023.

It’s not often that an underdog sports dramedy wants to get you rooting for a massive corporation, but that’s the unique position of Air. Director Ben Affleck and writer Alex Convery adapt the semi-biographical story of how Nike became a basketball sneaker titan by focusing on its employees rather than on spokesman Michael Jordan, which works surprisingly well. The choice to never show an actor playing Jordan (beyond from-behind silhouettes) allows all main players of this true-ish Nike story to shine without having to compete with the Hall of Famer’s greatness. Instead, Convery’s screenplay finds thematic importance in how Nike’s Jordan deal forever changed royalty stakes for athletes and the lives of the ambitious people inside it, which permits an outstanding ensemble to sell the cheerily hopeful messages behind Air.

Air tells a story about dreamers and mavericks, pulling together a tremendous cast who finds the best in their characters. Jordan may be the celebrity at the center, but it’s Matt Damon’s tenacious Sonny Vaccaro who is the unlikely hero – the basketball guru hired by Nike CEO Phil Knight (played with rich confliction by Affleck) to build their specialty division that aspires to compete with A.D.I.D.A.S and Converse’s NBA stranglehold. Damon’s everyman charm as the smartest sports analyst in a room full of marketing suits plays into his ability to win just about anyone over, be they his co-stars or us in the audience. Sonny spends the entire movie betting his job, other employees’ jobs, and Nike’s struggling basketball division on his crazy idea to bet everything on Jordan – a role that Damon grounds with lovable optimism and leading-man charisma that eradicates any boardroom stuffiness.

Air highlights meaty performances like Viola Davis as Jordan’s negotiation-savvy mother Deloris, and Jason Bateman as Nike’s stressy, by-the-books marketing manager Rob Strasser. These actors and more make Air a human drama where dollar signs and television commercial spots are the topic but not the focus – it’s all about why Sonny and Rob would work weekends or why Deloris eventually granted Nike a meeting despite Jordan’s disinterest. Air cleverly allows the perspectives of everyone, from panicking CEOs to Chris Messina as Jordan’s scene-stealing, hot-headed agent to steer the story away from being just another number-crunching biopic without a soul.

That said, Affleck and Convery are giving us information we already know in a commercial package less concerned about reinvention. Air might be Affleck’s least visually compelling movie, especially with some green-screen shots that stick out like a sore digital thumb. The Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon doesn’t ever feel unique in its non-metropolitan location, nor does the aesthetic feel indulgently ‘80s despite Phil’s iconic neon-pink “nut hugger” jogging shorts or a few needle drops (Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” sets the tone like it has for many movies before). Affleck focuses on characters with laser sights, but sometimes forgets to characterize Air itself. It’s all on the backs of a cast asked to find heartfelt themes in the business of NBA shoe market supremacy.

Thankfully, the cast does just that.

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air movie review metacritic

Every actor snatches the ball and is allowed their spotlight moment. Davis reaches beyond stereotypes about overbearing mothers to embody a strong Black woman who stands proudly before white businessmen who see her son as a golden goose. Damon struggles to release the budgetary handcuffs restricting Sonny’s ability to do his job while reconciling the reality that Nike’s entire basketball division could vanish if his brilliant-in-hindsight gamble fails.

These are the performances that leave lasting impressions – sometimes pure entertainment value, other times emotionally pointed, like when Bateman vulnerably states what’s at stake should his company man and part-time father lose his stable job. Convery’s story isn’t just about what would happen to Nike if Jordan chose Converse or A.D.I.D.A.S instead – it’s so compellingly about the people the deal would either build or destroy, depending on the outcome.

air movie review metacritic

It’s also a funnier movie than expected. One can assume the actual proceedings that led to Jordan’s deal with Nike weren’t as filled with jokes, especially the fiery banter between Sonny and David whenever the frustrated agent calls to chew Nike’s persistent negotiator a new one. Even supporting castmate Matthew Maher finds artfully dropped lines of comedic relief as chief shoe designer Peter Moore because no role, however small, is wasted.

Affleck successfully does what Tetris also attempts: spicing up dry contract negotiations with humor and levity, another secret ingredient that adds to the intrigue. This is, after all, a story you’ve probably already heard with a groundbreaking outcome, and yet we’re happily along for the ride, respecting the characters’ hustle while laughing at their methods as the Air Jordan line is created before our eyes.

Air is an underdog crowd-pleaser with a standout ensemble cast sharpened to a point. As both director and co-star, Ben Affleck finds a balance between comedy and explanation that remains accessible to all audiences. Sneakerhead historians might not find themselves challenged or enlightened regarding the events of the Air Jordan deal, and it does feel a little less impactful than we’ve come to expect from Affleck in terms of cinematography and iconically ‘80s atmosphere, but Air is an accomplished character study, scene after scene. We’re here to watch actors like Matt Damon and Viola Davis do what they do best, digging into the complexity of roles beyond the prominent characteristics. Air is an entertaining sorta biographical tale that owns its creative liberties, emphasizing the importance of Nike’s precedent-shifting Michael Jordan deal without letting Jordan’s celebrity overshadow everything else.

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air movie review metacritic

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A photo from the movie “Air” with Matthew Maher as Peter Moore Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Jason Bateman as Rob...

“Air” is a meaningful movie but an unsatisfying one. It’s a fascinating story vigorously depicted and acted, featuring characters whose heroism is unusual and whose place in history is both secure and obscure. The movie, directed by Ben Affleck, who also co-stars, depicts how Nike recruited Michael Jordan to the company, creating the Air Jordan line and thereby making the company very profitable and Jordan very rich. It’s a story of cultural change, of the invention of a ubiquitous style and its wider implications. Yet the film is a hermetic one, self-contained and nearly context-free, that thrusts its protagonists so far into the foreground that they block the movie’s purview. Rather than magnifying these characters, the close view diminishes them, elides their accomplishments from society at large, and renders them a mere success story .

The film delivers its own backstory. (It differs, of course, from some accounts of how Jordan came to join Nike.) In 1984, Nike is mired in third place behind the two industry leaders, Converse and Adidas. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a basketball guru and a major promoter in the high-school and college game, is employed by Nike to provide contacts in the basketball world. The company is seeking endorsements from incoming rookies chosen in that year’s N.B.A. draft, and has committed two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to be spread among multiple players. But Sonny is fixated on the idea of putting all the eggs in one basket, concentrating the entire sum on one incoming player: Michael Jordan, taken third in the draft, by the Chicago Bulls.

Sonny’s plan poses a large risk to the company; his colleagues, other executives, and the company’s C.E.O., Phil Knight (Affleck), are leery of the plan. Moreover, Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), is guiding the athlete toward either of Nike’s two bigger and richer competitors. So, aided by wise counsel from two Black men—Howard White (Chris Tucker), the only Black executive at Nike who figures in the film, and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), a prominent college-basketball coach who’s also Sonny’s longtime friend—Sonny makes an end run around both David and Phil and takes his pitch for Nike directly to the de-facto boss of Jordan’s business concerns: the athlete’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), at the family home, in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Michael, played by Damian Young, appears only as a background character.)

The question of why in the world this quest is of any dramatic significance is rooted in the three prime lines of drama that the movie’s script, by Alex Convery, boldly sketches: Sonny’s quest, Deloris’s quest, and Phil’s quest. The movie rushes by agreeably because its story is constructed three-dimensionally; every action, every moment, is plotted simultaneously on three lines of effort, which don’t all cohere into a single shape until the happy ending.

Sonny sparks the action as the only sports marketer who recognizes Jordan as not just a very talented player but a great one, because of the combined superiority of Jordan’s athletic ability and unique sense of will, determination, even destiny. Affleck cannily, even cagily, reveals the insight on which Sonny’s judgment is based, in a scene that’s among the movie’s most enticing. Sonny watches, over and over, a videotape of Jordan’s signature moment in college ball—a championship-winning shot that he hit in 1982. Shortly thereafter, Sonny forces Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), an executive who runs marketing, to watch the same snippet of tape. Sonny explains that he sees hidden in it, in plain sight, Jordan’s awareness that he’ll be getting the ball on a planned play, his relaxed confidence in taking a shot that’s critical to his own career, his coach’s career, and the team’s fortunes. It’s the quality that Sonny defines as greatness, and he can detect it both as a student of the game and an insightful psychologist (like a filmmaker who perceives the transcendent star quality of an untested actor). That intuition is what drives Sonny’s all-out effort to recruit Jordan for Nike.

When Deloris is convinced that Nike is the right choice, she adds a contractual stipulation that is both an inspiration and a grand, even historic, declaration of principle: that, in addition to his fee, her son be paid a percentage of every sale of an Air Jordan shoe, anywhere in the world. The principle, of course, is that the athlete is no mere adornment for the brand but, rather, the prime source of the shoe’s value, not an amplification to the business but the crucial participant in it. The moral essence of her insistence is that the athlete is entitled to a part of the wealth that they create—and the political implication, unvoiced but resonant, is that Black athletes should have a share of the vast wealth that they’re creating for white-run businesses.

Affleck, both as an actor and a director, emphasizes Phil’s idiosyncratic temperament and his co-creation of Nike as a reflection of his personality. (This approach is reflected in the deployment of the company’s aphoristic statement of principles, which are quoted onscreen and illustrated in dramatic scenes.) Yet, after the company went public in 1980, Phil is beholden to a board of directors, who, with an eye on the bottom line, scrutinize his decisions and could even fire him. Sonny asserts that the spirit of the company is at risk of being lost if Phil loses confidence in his own judgment (which is to say, in Sonny) and yields to corporate routine, boardroom prudence, and business-school calculations. Consider Sonny a filmmaker and Phil a producer.

That analogy, far from being merely a hint of Affleck and Damon’s personal investment in the story of “Air,” is at the core of Affleck’s direction. The drama is something like a parody and a perversion of auteurism—a top-down and mastermind-centric view of the recruitment of Jordan, one that takes little interest in the wide range of activities involved in the project and in the development of the shoe, little interest in who’ll be buying the shoe and what it will mean to the buyer. Howard underscores the market importance of basketball shoes because of the racial gap in the running-shoe market, joking that Black people are unlikely to go jogging for fear of being mistaken for fleeing suspects. It’s a line of dialogue that does a huge amount of work, in lieu of drama.

“Air” is a story of fashion, of music, of sports and athleticism themselves as a kind of style and even of artistic expression; of the sudden ubiquity of popular musicians by way of music videos and MTV; of the relationship of American racial politics to style; and of the rapid and definitive emergence of hip-hop as the prime national and international music. The shoes are being marketed foremost to young Black consumers, yet the prospective buyers are never heard from, hardly even seen. The only young Black character in the film (other than Michael Jordan) is a clerk (Asanté Deshon) at a 7-Eleven, a basketball fan who opines to Sonny that Jordan is “too small for the N.B.A.” (Later in the film, after Jordan has become a star, he tells Sonny, “We all knew.”) The point is, doubtless unintentionally, a sordid one: that, in the street, the prevailing wisdom holds sway, but, to lead public opinion, to create a phenomenon, it takes the leadership of an expert—someone like Sonny.

The process that “Air” details is nonetheless absorbing. Sonny’s acumen extends beyond the basketball court into the business side, as when, at his first meeting with Deloris, he’s both unusually candid and insightful about the disadvantages that a contract with Converse or Adidas would pose to Michael. (Her confidence in Sonny’s judgment is reinforced when his predictions about the course of the Jordans’ meetings with those companies’ executives prove correct.) Sonny stage-manages the actual business of persuasion—the pitch that Nike will formally make to the Jordans, Deloris and James (Julius Tennon, Davis’s real-life husband)—and it involves a twist of clumsiness that’s amusing, and a burst of inspiration that’s thrilling. (I won’t spoil the backstory, which involves a lesson that George, as a long-ago witness to a historic event, imparts to Sonny.)

“Air” is a dialogue-rich film, as befits a movie about negotiations, and the dialogue is delivered with flair and enthusiasm, not least because its actors contributed greatly to crafting it. The script is the first by Convery to be produced, and he reports (in a fascinating interview by Kate Erbland ) that Affleck and the cast—mainly Damon, Tucker, and Davis—subjected the screenplay to a high level of revision. Tucker wrote most of his own dialogue, and Davis wrote the most important part of hers. (Don’t trust the credits: in general, directors and actors with significant artistry and clout are surely doing a significant amount of writing.) Damon is both commanding and miscast, both conspicuously gleeful in the role of Sonny yet all too breezy and lacking spice and rough edges; it’s Davis who, in a relatively little amount of screen time, gives the film its anchoring performance.

However, the movie’s florid talk doesn’t only serve the drama or provide the sheer pleasure of the back-and-forth. The talk fills the movie like dramatic spacing and padding, delivering moods—man-to-man ballbusting, sentimental bonding, earnest confessions—as a way of marking time and building suspense without actually conveying much about characters, their experiences and their thoughts, or yielding the screen to characters or situations who aren’t at the center of the story and the top of the pyramid.

The most crucial of those additional presences is Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), the shoemaker. He’s at once a scientist and an artist, an engineer and a fashion designer, who cocoons himself in his underlit, laboratory-like studio. Inspired by Arthur Ashe’s line of tennis racquets, Sonny wants Peter to make a shoe to Jordan’s own specifications; as I watched the movie, I was intensely curious about what this notion would mean in practice. But the movie spends very little time in the laboratory or with Peter. When Sonny goes to see what Peter has come up with, the engineer proudly declares that he has achieved something new: “It is the logic of water.” It’s a nice line, but what does he mean? It’s negatively exemplary of the film that its crucially physical aspect—the one where the foot goes into the shoe, where the rubber hits the road—is elided in favor of a one-liner and a conceptual hand wave.

Lack of physicality is perhaps the defining trait of Affleck’s direction, both here and in his Oscar-winning “ Argo .” (Both films were the result of a script from the Black List , the Hollywood honor roll of notable unproduced screenplays.) What Affleck creates, as a director, is fishbowl cinema, observing his characters’ action without any seeming point of contact with the actors, without any sense of presence, through walls of glass thicker and more airtight than those of his camera’s lenses. His sense of story is so specific that he displays it whole and closed off, without any apparent curiosity about what goes into it and what arises from it; his conception of characters is so closely tied to dramatic necessity that he neglects to consider them as people. The movie’s substance remains largely implicit; its pleasures are partial, detached, and superficial. It offers little context, background, personality, or anything that risks distracting from the show. ♦

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Screen Rant

Air review: ben affleck's sports drama is a crowd-pleasing slam dunk.

Air, featuring great performances and an incredible script, is one of those special sports movies that only come along once in a while.

Almost everyone who knows a thing or two about the sports world can recognize that Air Jordans are some of the most popular sneakers of all time. What very few people know is that this partnership between Michael Jordan and Nike almost never existed. In Amazon Studios’ latest sports drama, Air , director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery highlight the struggles and hurdles it took Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro to overcome to secure a game-changing collaboration that would change the world of sports partnerships forever.

Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike executive who aims to change his luck and that of his company's by scoring the biggest contract of his career with rookie Michael Jordan . With a fledgling basketball division, Nike was never an interest for the young basketball star. But with his back against the wall, Vaccaro pulls out all the stops to make a career-defining move and gamble with his CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck). The two things standing in his way? A reluctant Michael Jordan, who has his sights set on Adidas, and his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), who only wants the best for her son and knows what Jordan’s talents are worth.

Related: Ben Affleck & Matt Damon Open Up About Affleck Finally Directing Damon

Air , featuring great performances and an incredible script, is one of those special sports movies that only comes along once in a while. It isn’t a long-winded marketing ploy for shoe giant Nike, though it can come off that way. Instead, Affleck’s latest is an inspirational feel-good story about believing in something (or someone) so much that one would bet all the stakes on it. The film zeroes in on this human aspect, opting out of the mundanity of detailed business talk, legalities, and contractual details, which is why the film succeeds. Convery recognizes that all movie-goers may not care too much about basketball, so, together with Affleck, he strategically and beautifully focuses his story on the people. And it’s exactly what will hook viewers of all types.

One of the greatest achievements of Air ’s script is the believability of it all. Even knowing how it all plays out today, watching the depiction of Nike execs chase after a game-changing partnership with Michael Jordan is believable. Affleck plays his cards incredibly well, incorporating the back and forth between Nike and the Jordan family. Everything leading up to the finale is well-intentioned and thrilling, to say the least, but these elements are only half of what makes Air so great. Some may attribute this to the film’s subject matter, but in reality, the entire cast and crew put together an exceptionally infectious feature worth watching on the big screen.

The stellar cast, in particular, is reason enough to run to the theater to see Air . Matt Damon, for example, is sensational as Sonny, balancing humorous moments with heartfelt ones. Even as an actor, it has to be challenging to come off as passionate as Damon does here (especially without a love of sports). But thankfully it oozes through him, which is why he’s perfect for the role. Other noteworthy performances include Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina (whose interactions with Damon are some of the most fun onscreen this year), Affleck, and Davis, all of whom make this feature thoroughly enjoyable. Good luck to anyone walking out of Air trying to determine a favorite because they all come with their A-game and nail every minute of their screen time.

It would be remiss to mention all these great elements without stating the obvious: Affleck’s direction in Air is stupendous work. The way in which he interweaves footage and sequences with real life imagery is fantastic. Additionally, the level of detail Affleck incorporates in nearly every scene to capture the setting of that time highlights his passion for the subject and how he has improved as a director. But above all, his latest is simply a joyous experience consisting of electrifying cast chemistry, inspiring messaging, and an uncanny desire to root for the sneaker giant even though the outcome is already known. The Air Jordans and Nike partnership is legendary, and thanks to it, this film is soon to be the same.

Air releases in theaters on April 5. The film is 112 minutes and rated R for language.

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No substance, just 'Air'

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Aisha Harris

air movie review metacritic

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in Air. Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios hide caption

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in Air.

In 1984, a young Michael Jordan signed what was then the NBA's most lucrative sneaker deal with Nike. The Air Jordan line was a culture-shifting juggernaut, impacting not just the business of sports but fashion, celebrity, hip-hop, and street culture for decades to come. It inspired an encyclopedia. It became a status symbol. It renewed hand-wringing over American consumerism and " Black-on-Black " crime.

Over the years, there have been plenty of examinations of the Air Jordan brand's fraught success and influence, including a 2018 documentary, Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1. But we're living in the era of the nostalgic headline-to-Hollywood pipeline and in an age where entrepreneurs are obsessed with being credited as artistic visionaries, so perhaps it was inevitable something like the movie Air would come to exist. Directed by Ben Affleck with a screenplay by Alex Convery, Air is a soulless dramatization of how a giant corporation convinced a promising NBA rookie to make its already wealthy and well-off board members, CEOs, and salespeople even wealthier and set for life.

OK, that's the crass way of describing it; the film's creators would undoubtedly characterize their aims as being more "inspiring" than that. It's presented as a classic sports movie about an underdog team (in this case, Nike) achieving greatness with a game-winning score (a rousing boardroom sales pitch). It's imagined as a classic American tale of ambition and a singular vision, in the form of the underestimated salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). It's set up as an affirmation of Black Excellence writ large, of a budding superstar demanding, via his sharp-witted mother Deloris (Viola Davis), he is paid his worth in a business known for exploiting its athletes, especially its Black ones. (Interestingly, the faceless actor playing Jordan is only seen from behind and mutters just a handful of words throughout the entire film.)

But for all that Don Draperesque spin, Air really is crass. It's nothing more than a craven exercise in capitalist exaltation. The dramatic "stakes," if one wants to call them that – and if one does, they're being overly generous – are as follows: It's 1984, and Nike trails behind Adidas and Converse in sales. If you work at the giant corporation that is Nike at that time, that's a problem. This is especially true for Sonny, the longtime Nike salesman who's decided to bet his career on trying to secure the Chicago Bulls' NBA draft pick Michael Jordan for an unprecedented sneaker deal. (We know this because he says, "I'm willing to bet my career on Michael Jordan.")

The 'Disrupter'

air movie review metacritic

Julius Tennon as James Jordan Sr. in Air . Ana Carballosa/Amazon Studios hide caption

Julius Tennon as James Jordan Sr. in Air .

Sonny is positioned as a "disrupter" who sees "greatness" in Jordan at a time when few others do. After replaying a VHS tape of the athlete's game-winning shot at the 1982 NCAA Championships, he decides the company has to break traditions and make an offer the other brands won't. Instead of spending its budget on signing multiple new basketball stars, Sonny wants Nike to go all-in on Jordan.

Unfortunately for Sonny, being a disrupter means facing opposition from those content with the status quo – including his boss, the cantankerous CEO Phil Knight (a red-haired Affleck); the by-the-books VP of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman); and Jordan's misanthropic, hard-bargaining agent David Falk (Chris Messina), who doesn't even want his client to take a meeting with Nike. And so Sonny does what all "great" men in Movies About Great Men do – he goes rogue, secretly driving from Oregon to the Jordan family's home in North Carolina to pitch himself directly to Deloris. Exactly how will Sonny finally break through all that defense and drive this deal to the net, huh???

Air is convinced there's enough nail-biting tension to be gleaned from this conundrum and enough audience buy-in of the Jordan mythos and brand to overcome such a flimsy premise. And to be fair, the performers are fully committed to what little character development they're given – Davis is, per usual, giving off convincing gravitas; Messina's prickly and lends some levity to the proceedings.

But just as there are many meetings that could've been an email, this is one movie that could've been a narrative podcast. (Many of the major figures involved, including Vaccaro and Knight, are still with us.) Sonny, our erstwhile hero, is by far the least interesting character; a bland descendant of countless white guy protagonists who have nothing left to lose, including Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire. This becomes painfully clear somewhere around the midway point of Air when Rob delivers a monologue about how he's wary of Sonny's wild plans and that he really, really needs to keep his job, not just for a paycheck, but because working at Nike has allowed him to connect with his young daughter. (He only gets to see her once a week following his divorce and always brings her a new pair of complimentary Nikes. Her love, it seems, is conditional upon being able to sport the latest kicks.) In those few minutes, we learn more about this secondary character than our disrupter, whose only defining characteristics are that he likes to gamble and that he's out of shape (several characters comment upon his weight). Rob's monologue is obviously thrown in to lend some weight to the Jordan recruitment that doesn't exist within the depiction of Sonny himself.

Show him the money

air movie review metacritic

Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis). Amazon Studios hide caption

Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis).

And on the subject of Jerry Maguire : Like Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Rod Tidwell, Michael Jordan's strategic aims to secure the best deal possible are steered by the most important Black woman in his life – in both cases, there's a nod to subversiveness that doesn't quite hold water if you think about it too hard. (" We determine our worth," Rod's wife Marcee, played by Regina King, says while persuading him not to take an underwhelming offer. "You are a strong, proud, surviving, splendid Black man.")

Likewise, Jordan's mom Deloris is the one who holds the key to Sonny's future at Nike, and when she shrewdly negotiates with him over the phone – she insists her son get a cut of the revenue, unheard of at that time – Air wants the audience to believe there's a deeper purpose here beyond an exercise in championing capitalism. A Black man disrupting the historically racist system that undervalues Black talent by forcing that same system to run him his bag, and then some – this will undoubtedly appeal to a certain demographic that still reveres the old-school definition of the American Dream and celebrates Black billionaires as meaningful "progress." In my screening of Air , there were whoops and cheers when Nike finally accepted the terms of Deloris' negotiations.

Yet there's something ultimately hollow about trying to extract FUBU mentality from what amounts to a two-hour ad for Nike and the uber-rich, especially in this economy. It's marked by the same odd dichotomy that comes with hearing one of our beloved musicians, herself a billionaire, sing about being "paid ... in equity" and buying her husband a jet. Do they deserve to be compensated for their worth? Of course. But let's not pretend as if more insanely wealthy Black people are some sort of "win" for all of us.

Though at least when said pop star boasts about her riches, there's an engaging tension between her sheer artistry and the awareness of inequalities that exist in this country and everywhere else. With Air – which concludes with subtitles pointing out how the lush benefactors of this sweet, sweet deal have donated money to good causes in the years since – there's no there there, no feeling to latch onto besides, "Why was this made?" It's nothing but air.

Air is now playing in theaters.

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clock This article was published more than  1 year ago

‘Air’ shoots and scores, with story, character, catharsis and depth

We all know how the tale of michael jordan and nike ends up, but ben affleck’s film about it is a smart and entertaining delight.

air movie review metacritic

“Air,” Ben Affleck’s funny, moving and surprisingly meaningful tale of how Nike came to create Air Jordan basketball shoes, might have been a real snore. We all know how the story ends, and do we really need a movie that perpetuates yet another David-and-Goliath myth about a world-dominating corporation?

Apparently, the answer is yes: Working from a well-judged script by first-time screenwriter Alex Convery and enlisting a superb cast of appealing ensemble players, Affleck has created something that Hollywood has seemed incapable of making in recent years: a smart, entertaining movie that, for all its foregone conclusions and familiar beats, unfolds with the offhand confidence of the most casually impressive layup.

The key to any story, especially one the audience already thinks it knows, is choosing the right donkey — the person who will not only lead us through the plot but make us care. Enter Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike talent scout who, as the movie opens, is working college games and nursing a compulsive gambling habit. “Air” begins in the 1980s, shortly after the company has gone public; although co-founder Phil Knight had attained a 50 percent market share in the athletic shoe market, in basketball he was trailing behind Converse and Adidas. During the era of Rolodexes, Rubik’s Cubes, Reagan and rappers — all of which are name-checked in “Air’s” snappy opening montage set to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” — Nike’s hippest product was tracksuits, not sneakers.

Sonny’s colleagues at Nike, including marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), field rep Howard White (Chris Tucker) and Knight (Affleck), seem to have accepted their lot as also-rans when Sonny suggests betting their entire sponsorship budget on the young North Carolina phenom Michael Jordan. What ensues might best be described as “Jerry Maguire” meets “King Richard,” as Sonny goes head to head with his bosses, Jordan’s fast-talking agent (Chris Messina), and the ultimate decision-maker and toughest negotiator of them all: Jordan’s mother, Deloris.

Affleck has said in interviews that Michael Jordan had only one stipulation in the making of “Air”: that Viola Davis would play Deloris. Affleck granted that request, and when Davis enters the proceedings, the weather changes. Up until her appearance, Damon, Bateman, Tucker and Affleck — who as Knight drives an absurd purple Porsche, wears goofy running get-ups and spouts corny New Age aphorisms — keep the balloon afloat with pacey jocularity and a slick, fast-moving business story. Once Sonny goes to North Carolina to meet Deloris and James Jordan (the latter is played by Davis’s real-life husband, Julius Tennon), “Air” transforms from a worthy if conventional underdog tale to the chronicle of a seismic cultural shift.

“Air” is that rare sports movie that is virtually guaranteed to appeal to both hardcore NBA fans and people who don’t know a three-point line from a field goal (thanks, Wikipedia!). The key, of course, is the human factor, here channeled through consistently relaxed, irresistibly likable performances, especially from Damon at his most relatably chunky, Davis at her most serenely commanding, Bateman (alternately quippy and disarmingly sincere), and Affleck, who between this and 2021’s “The Last Duel” might deserve an honorary acting Oscar for being willing to make himself look utterly ridiculous for the greater good.

As a director, he’s also willing to indulge the audience’s craving for pleasure, whether by way of “Air’s” thoroughly rewarding plot or delicious period-piece touches, which include an ’80s-tastic soundtrack and the re-creation of Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters, where smoking corners and sundae bars are the order of the long-bygone day. (He also wisely shoots the actor playing Jordan only from behind, avoiding inevitable and distracting comparisons.)

Spouting his own aphorism, at one point Sonny reminds his colleagues that “you’re remembered for the rules you break.” Affleck doesn’t break rules with “Air” as much as restore them, obeying principles that have seemed mortally endangered in recent years — about sound structure, recognizably human characters, satisfying catharsis, authentic but not overreaching depth. The modest but gratifying gifts of “Air” lie in its seeming effortlessness, reassuring viewers that a good movie can still be a good story, well told. It’s a movie that shoots and scores. And, miraculously, it turns out that’s still enough.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong language throughout. 112 minutes.

air movie review metacritic

‘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


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.


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.


‘Air’ Review: Ben Affleck’s Story of Michael Jordan and Nike Is a Slam Dunk

Starring Matt Damon, Viola Davis, and Jason Bateman, 'Air' is a great example of Ben Affleck's skills as a filmmaker.

Ben Affleck deserves more credit. The actor/writer/director has gotten an unfair amount of crap over the decades, from the ebbs and flows of his acting career to becoming a favorite of the paparazzi, but the work Affleck has done over three decades is truly impressive. As an actor, he’s worked with directors like Richard Linklater , Gus Van Sant , Terrence Malick , Ridley Scott , and David Fincher . As a writer, his first produced screenplay, Good Will Hunting , won Affleck a Best Original Screenplay Oscar alongside Matt Damon , and, in addition to writing his last three directorial efforts, he teamed back up with Damon and with Nicole Holofcener on the criminally underrated The Last Duel .

And as a director, Affleck has given us the type of adult dramas that we rarely see anymore on the screen, films that stick with you long after they’re over, yet, somehow, remain crowd-pleasing—films like Gone Baby Gone , The Town , and the Best Picture Oscar-winning Argo . Sure, this is the guy who loves Dunkin' Donuts with an unshakable passion, and has had some high-profile romances, but Affleck’s work is impeccable at this point. Seven years after his only swing-and-a-miss as a director, 2016’s Live by Night , Affleck returns as director with Air , an excellent example of Affleck’s gifts as a filmmaker, a film that despite largely taking place in boardrooms and over phone calls, becomes one of the best films of 2023 so far, a compelling story that keeps us on the edge of our seats, despite us knowing exactly how this story will end.

Set in the mid-1980s, Air shows us a time when Nike was only the third-biggest shoe company in the world, trailing behind Converse and Adidas, and attempting to make their name in basketball shoes—and considering closing down the division altogether. While most of the basketball side of Nike wants to attempt to get several iffy NBA players signed to Nike, Sonny Vaccaro ( Matt Damon ), wants to sign one rookie: Michael Jordan . Sonny sees something in Jordan that no one else sees yet, and knows that using Nike’s entire basketball shoe budget to get Jordan will be, well, a slam dunk. The only problem Sonny has is trying to convince Nike to make the biggest deal they’ve ever made for a shoe, and convince Jordan—who has no interest in Nike—to come over to a company that is third best.

RELATED: The True Story Behind Ben Affleck’s Next Directorial Feature ‘Air’

Much like Affleck’s other films, Air has an incredible cast all the way down the line. In recent years, Damon has become the ideal actor at this type of role, playing characters that seem to be able to predict the future of whatever medium he’s thrown into (see also: Ford v Ferrari ), but also showing a passion and sense of humor that makes him such an engaging lead. Jason Bateman is excellent as Rob Strasser, Nike’s advertising manager who Sonny convinces to help in his wild scheme early on, and Affleck perfectly chose himself to play the head of Nike, Phil Knight . Even in smaller roles, Marlon Wayans , Chris Tucker , and especially a loud-mouth Chris Messina , each get their own moments to steal this film right out from under the lead actors. This is especially true of Viola Davis , who plays Michael’s mother, Dolores Jordan , at the request of Michael himself. In a way, Davis almost plays the audience surrogate, as she and the audience both know the power and brilliance that her son has on the court, and we know he’s worth every penny that she fights for in her son’s name.

The feature film debut of writer Alex Convery , Air ’s screenplay could easily be criticized for essentially being built around characters giving grandiose, motivational speeches about the power of greatness, or the power of taking a chance, yet Air never gets overwhelmed by these monologues. Instead, since we know where this story goes, these moments have a surprising amount of impact, as we know that we’re watching these people do everything they can to help one of the greatest athletes of all time achieve his potential. Convery and Affleck do all of this, creating a story that feels grand, despite often taking place in less-than-impressive offices and in conversations that largely center around how to make an excellent shoe—that they don’t realize will change the history of footwear forever.

Again, as with Affleck’s other films, Air feels like the type of film that we don’t really see too often anymore. Air is inspirational, and moving, and deeply funny, all while exploring people who are simply good at their jobs trying to do what’s right. It sounds simple, but it’s anything but, in order to make a story like this as exciting as it ends up being. Affleck and Convery know exactly how to handle this story and still make it looks easy. For example, Affleck makes the smart choice in not ever showing Michael Jordan’s face. Jordan is a presence that looms large over all these characters, and while he interacts with the cast and this story, Affleck knows that showcasing Jordan any more than he does would dare to take the focus away from the larger story at hand. Similarly, he knows just how to use the supporting cast, never overdoing it with the performances by Davis or Messina that could threaten to steal the story away from Damon’s Sonny. It’s a masterful balancing act that Affleck handles perfectly.

It would be hyperbolic for sure to say that Affleck is the Jordan of this type of crowd-pleasing, mature filmmaking, but he’s certainly one of the best at it. As Sonny shows us early on when trying to get Nike invested in Jordan, he knows that Jordan has an ease on the court, that he makes it all seem so easy, despite the tension and pressure that any other player would feel. Similarly, Affleck makes Air look easy, a director who knows exactly what he’s doing, and knows how to build anticipation, work our excitement, and tell a story about a shoe that is truly enthralling and gripping.

Air comes to theaters on April 5.

‘Air,’ about Nike chasing Michael Jordan, is year’s best film so far

Director ben affleck’s fast-paced period piece portrays a sneaker deal that revolutionized sports and business..


Matt Damon stars in “Air” as Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike exec determined to sign a promotional deal with Michael Jordan.

Amazon Studios

At an advance screening and reception for “Air” at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I’d say at least 60% of the attendees sported Nike gym shoes aka sneakers aka kicks. The Air Jordan 1 Mid, the Nike Dunk Low SE, Air Jordan Retro High Tops, Nike Air Force 1, Nike Blazer Low Platform, etc., etc., in a myriad of bright and shiny colors. Granted, the crowd was dressed to suit the occasion — but it’s not as if we all went out and purchased Nikes in advance. They’re in our closets. They’re in a LOT of closets and hallways and mud rooms and garages and under the beds around the planet.

This is my way of saying, yes, director/producer/co-star Ben Affleck’s “Air” is on one level a gigantic commercial for Nike—but “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” was a love song to Christian Dior, and even the scandal-ridden “House of Gucci” was a glam tribute to that high-end luxury fashion house, and hey, the Devil Wore Prada. (And a whole lot more people have Nikes on their feet than Gucci or Dior or Prada on their backs.)

Thanks to Affleck’s sure-handed, period-piece-perfect direction, a crackling good screenplay by Alex Convery and the lively, funny, warm, passionate performances from the A-list cast, “Air” is as entertaining and fast-paced as an NBA Finals game that is destined for overtime. It’s also about so much more than the courting of the teenage Michael Jordan. Like “The Social Network”—a movie it surely will be compared to—this is a vibrant time capsule capturing a moment in the culture when a series of events led to a revolution that forever changed the worlds of sports, business, fashion and lifestyle. Even though “Air” is about Nike and Michael Jordan, Affleck has delivered a crowd-pleasing, “Jerry Maguire”-esque, underdog story.

Matt Damon is such a comfortable onscreen presence that we might not give him enough credit for his versatility. He is the master of the low-key, 100% authentic performance, and he’s at the top of his game as the slightly barrel-shaped, obstinate, high-stakes gambler and gym-rat visionary Sonny Vaccaro, a sports marketing exec who couldn’t possibly have cared less what you thought of him or what you said about him, as long as you listened to him, because nobody was more certain Sonny was right than Sonny.

The year 2023 is as far removed from 1984 as 1984 was from 1945, so while the veteran (cough-cough) viewer might think Affleck overdoes the signifiers starting with the opening-credits montage of pop-culture reminders from ’84, that’s ancient history for millions, so it’s the right touch.

By the mid-1980s, the NBA star power machine was kicking into the next gear thanks to the likes of Dr. J., Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but this was still a time when CBS was airing some playoff games on tape delay, Converse and Adidas were the leading basketball shoe companies and Nike was the footwear of choice for runners. Enter Damon’s Sonny, who bounces about Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, in khakis and rumpled polo shirts, constantly barging into the offices of Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), brand manager Howard White (Chris Tucker) and marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), lobbying for the company to take an unprecedented gamble on 21-year-old Michael Jordan, who had been taken by the Bulls with the third overall pick in the 1984 draft. (Spoiler alert: It worked out for all parties.)


“Air” director Ben Affleck also plays Nike’s laid-back CEO Phil Knight.

So much of “Air” is about middle-aged men who have had success but find themselves at a crossroads, debating whether it’s wise to play it safe or to go all-in on a greatly gifted kid who still hadn’t been battle-tested. (In a smart move, Affleck chose not to have Jordan as a character in the story; we catch glimpses of stand-in Damian Young from behind, in the background.) Even though we know exactly how this will all play out, “Air” has the, well, air of a tense and taut procedural as Sonny races against the clock in a huge uphill race to overtake Converse and Adidas, the huge co-favorites to land Michael.

Sonny’s travels take him to meetings with the influential coach and mentor George Raveling (Marlon Wayans)—and to the Jordan home, where he has a backyard bench summit with Michael’s mother, Deloris, and what a grand and beautiful thing it is to have Viola Davis in this role. Davis’ Deloris is regal yet down-to-earth, visionary yet practical. She knows, more than anyone except MAYBE Michael, exactly who her son is and who he is going to be. (Chris Messina also provides some edgy comic relief as Jordan’s agent, David Falk, in one of those roles where the character is primarily on the phone, yelling at other people.)


Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) is her son Michael’s greatest advocate.

Director Affleck has a keen sense of pacing, of knowing when to crank up the tension and the conflicts, and when to let the story breathe. We get a number of insightful, human moments, e.g., when Bateman’s Strasser laments the state of his personal life while spending his birthday in Nike’s office, or when we see the eccentric genius of one Peter Moore (the wonderful character actor Matthew Maher), the Air Jordan designer who also created the famous Jumpman logo.

This is one of those movies in which every scene just … pops, even when we take little detours, as when Jay Mohr kills it as an exec with the German-owned Adidas, a powerful but humorless bunch whose pitch to the Jordans is exactly what Sonny told Deloris it would be. Everyone is terrific—Affleck expertly captures Phil Knight’s unique blend of laid-back, guru and take-no-prisoners business acumen—but it’s Damon’s slightly paunchy, world-weary, sometimes irritatingly persistent Sonny Vaccaro who is the undisputed MVP of this story. “Air” is the best movie of the year so far.


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Review: A different kind of underdog story in ‘Air’

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, left, and and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in a scene from "Air." (Amazon Prime Video via AP)

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, left, and and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in a scene from “Air.” (Amazon Prime Video via AP)

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in a scene from “Air.” (Ana Carballosa/Amazon Prime Video via AP)

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in a scene from “Air.” (Ana Carballosa/Amazon Prime Video via AP)

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, left, and Julius Tennon as James Jordan in a scene from “Air.” (Ana Carballosa/Amazon Prime Video via AP)

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in a scene from “Air.” (Ana Carballosa/Amazon Prime Video via AP)

This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser in a scene from “Air.” (Ana Carballosa/Amazon Prime Video via AP)

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The new movie “ Air ” is technically about a shoe. There is nothing especially extraordinary about this shoe. As the Q-like Nike designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) explains, the last significant change to footwear was made some 600 years ago when the decision was made to differentiate the right and left feet. The Air Jordan is, at the end of the day, just another shoe.

No one coos about how comfortable it is. No one waxes poetic about its performance enhancing abilities or how many podiatrists recommend it for sporting purposes. No one even tries it on.

That’s because “Air,” directed by Ben Affleck from a smart script by Alex Convery, is not really about the shoe at all. Nor is it about Michael Jordan, who has exactly one line in the film and is mostly seen from behind and in silhouette. It is about the men – and they were all men – of Nike who defied the odds and signed the rookie despite being a very distant third to Adidas and Converse in the basketball sneaker game in 1984.

This is not a sports movie, however. If “Moneyball,” a spiritual cousin to “Air,” was baseball-adjacent, “Air” is about as far away from the game of basketball as one can get. The sport and romance of basketball in “Air” is almost completely beside the point, which is in some ways the most honest way for a couple of Gen-Xers to make a sincere movie about a corporate brand’s biggest success.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Dev Patel on the set of "Monkey Man." (Akhirwan Nurhaidir/Universal Pictures via AP)

“Air” is more “Mad Men,” but without the glamour. In 1984, everything was brown and drab, except for the grape-colored sports car driven by Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, in a comedic role about C-suite eccentricities and ineffectuality). Even the new stuff looked old. There are only so many ways cinematographer Robert Richardson can shoot a corporate office park and series of conversations between men in ill-fitting polos and khakis. But Affleck and his music supervisor do have fun with their conventional but not ineffective needle drops.

The center of “Air” is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a Nike exec with a basketball scout’s eye for rising talent. He is not, at least on the surface, a slam dunk movie hero. Sonny is out of shape, as the movie reminds us with cruel frequency, he’s middle aged, he doesn’t have a family and he seems to do all his grocery shopping at the gas station. All he has is this job, which isn’t going especially well. And his big idea to bet on Jordan, and Jordan alone, has everyone — Knight; Jordan’s hot tempered agent David Falk (Chris Messina); Nike execs Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker); college ball coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans); and Jordan’s mom Deloris (Viola Davis) — essentially telling him he’s crazy.

One big issue with “Air” is that the dramatic stakes never really quite crystalize or spark excitement in the way that the best movies do when you go in knowing the ending. There are no life-or-death scares or thrilling plane escapes at the end for Affleck to fall back on for tension. Nike was not even an unsuccessful company on the brink of collapse, they just hadn’t cracked the basketball market to the satisfaction of their shareholders yet. It’s hard, as an audience member, to discern whether your own apathy is because you know the outcome or because the story hasn’t convinced you to care enough.

Still, this is movie that also has the potential to get better with time and rewatches. “Air” coasts quite well on its compelling, funny and self-aware script (which even allows room for an amusing disagreement about who exactly came up with the name Air Jordan) and charismatic movie stars. And Damon, who gets one show-stopping monologue, is the perfect actor to carry the film in his first time acting for his old pal . Here’s hoping that the longtime friends make this a habit.

“Air” pivots about halfway through when the Jordans finally enter the picture and, through Davis’ stoic performance, add a much-needed human element. It’s easy to forget that athletes being compensated justly for the value of their image is a relatively new phenomenon. One wonders why the movie couldn’t have mainly been about her and her savvy.

There is an admirably sly subversiveness to the whole endeavor in its refusal to glamourize the shoe, the company or the guys they’ve made a movie about. These are white-collar cubicle dwellers just trying to make it through the week and keep their jobs. I’m not even sure the movie buys into its subjects’ self-written and occasionally contradictory mythologies. Credit to the filmmakers that this is not a TED talk.

How can you be romantic about a billion-dollar shoe company?

“Air,” an Amazon Studios/MGM release in theaters now, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language throughout. Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.

MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr .

air movie review metacritic


24 Mar 2023

If it’s successful, Air might just prove to be the first in a wave of films about shoes. Can we expect a feature explaining how Hush Puppies got their name? A Cole Haan origin story, starring Cole Hauser? ‘Crocs: The Movie’? It’s easy to joke, but Ben Affleck ’s Nike thriller pulls off a pretty darn difficult task: making you care about how a pair of basketball shoes came to exist. Even if it doesn’t hit the heights of Affleck’s best directing work ( Argo , The Town ), it’s still gripping, deftly finding the human dramas pulsing throughout what is, on the surface, a pretty niche subject.


The cast-list juices up the proposition, not least its Affleck/ Matt Damon reunion — the second in recent years, after 2021’s The Last Duel . In that movie, Damon knelt before his old friend; in this one, their relationship is more fractious, and all the better for it. Affleck has cast himself in a zesty supporting role, as billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight, entertainingly playing him as an aphorism-spouting Buddhist who frets about his cherry-coloured sports car.

It's a crowd-pleaser, powered by kicky dialogue – but Air has a bit of a Michael Jordan problem.

Knight’s love of jogging is not shared by Damon’s exec Sonny Vaccaro, the movie’s main character, a doughy sharpshooter who does his best brainstorming while watching two TVs at the same time. Around them is a crackerjack ensemble: Jason Bateman as a sceptical exec, Chris Tucker (in his first film role for seven years) as a fast-talking marketing wonk, and especially Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother Deloris, whom Vaccaro needs to woo if he’s going to fulfil his hoop dream and make the deal of a lifetime.

It's a crowd-pleaser, powered by kicky dialogue, tossed out at speed by its players. But Air has a bit of a Michael Jordan problem. Presumably in deference to the basketball legend, Affleck makes him an oddly invisible figure in the drama — Jordan (Damian Delano Young) gets just one word to say, and when he’s present, the film shoots and cuts around him (it’s unintentionally hilarious when, in one crucial boardroom scene, he hastily turns his head away to study something on a wall before you can catch a proper glimpse).

The by-product of this is that Jordan becomes a strangely inconsequential presence in a film that’s all about him; a man who leaves his mother to do his talking, and who seems to have little agency of his own. Deloris, on the other hand, emerges as a tower of strength and empathy, the Jordan of the movie that you’ll come away thinking about. Even if the role is a little one-note, Davis is superb: in basketball parlance, her performance is all swish.

The film as a whole isn’t quite so swishy, sometimes feeling generic (the “Look! We’re in the 1980s!” montage that opens Air could come from a hundred other films) and occasionally falling into generic sports-movie tropes. It’s a lot of fun, way more than a film about a large company striving to make even more money should be. But it could have paid a little more heed to #3 on Nike’s famous list of ten corporate principles: “Break the rules.”

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Has a Vampire Weekend song ever sounded less like Vampire Weekend than the dubby, cinematic synth-and-trumpet fantasia The Surfer ? Gen-X Cops out-Strokes the Strokes at their own grizzled New York scuzz-pop, while Mary Boone , tangentially named after a disgraced New York art dealer, has time for Indian raga and a choir. As ever, mortality looms large – the title comes, indirectly, from a survivor of an 80s American air disaster. But reckonings with the past – New York in the 80s, family trees, how “the cruel, with time, becomes classical” ( Classical ) – also run through singer Ezra Koenig ’s skein of allusions and heartfelt exhortations. Both Capricorn and Hope, the eight-minute closer, are about not trying so hard and letting go: wise, rather than clever words.

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