It’s crazy to think that sneaker-giant Nike, at one point in their over 40 year existence, were an underdog in the shoe game. But alas, in 1984, trailing behind Converse and Adidas in the world of basketball, Nike’s market share for basketball sneakers was monumentally low. And without the company funds to sign an All-Star NBA player for their shoes, it seemed like Nike was destined to be a ‘running shoe’ forever. Until shoe salesman and marketing genius, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) comes up with a ballsy and unprecedented idea for the company: don’t sell an existing shoe to multiple players, but build a completely new shoe around one upcoming rookie. And that rookie just so happened to become the GOAT in basketball, number 23, Michael Jordan. And that shoe just so happened to become the highest selling and most profitable shoe ever, the Air Jordan.
Ben Affleck is one of the best directors working today. His debut feature Gone, Baby, Gone is an underwatched, thriller-masterpiece, and his work since then (films like The Town and Argo) have been acclaimed by awards bodies, critics and audiences alike. However AIR almost feels like a departure from Affleck’s tendencies for a crime-thriller full of visceral shootouts and tension-filled chases. But, in an odd way, his ability to create tension in his previous work has served well in this movie, because despite knowing where the story ends, the journey on the way is riveting, engaging and easily one of the best films of the year so far.
Boasting a cast of heavy hitters, AIR is led by Matt Damon, who plays Sonny Vaccaro, a salesman in Nike’s failing basketball shoe division who has a passion for up and coming basketball talent, and a knack for gambling. Alongside fellow salesman Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), the two must approach Nike CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) with a plan to take their measly $250,000 budget meant for three different players, and bank it all on one rookie who has never touched an NBA court before. It’s a long shot, and dealing with foul-mouthed, short-tempered player agents like David Falk (Chris Messina) is the least of Vaccaro’s problems when it comes time to convince the most important person in this negotiation – Michael’s mother, Dolores Jordan, who is portrayed in yet another powerhouse performance from the incomparable Viola Davis.
AIR is 2023’s Ford vs Ferrari (which also coincidentally starred Matt Damon). It’s the ultimate ‘dad-movie’ premise. And sure, while dad’s (or basically any male over 25 years old) will be flocking to the cinema screens for the underdog sports movie about a shoe that was worn by an indescribably amazing athlete that has the most banging 1980s soundtrack in existence, there is so much heart, spirit and feel-good vibes in this film that it can be watched, appreciated and even loved by all audiences. Right from the nostalgia filled opening credits montage that is an ode to all things 80s, this spirited energy lifts the audience, and had me smiling from ear to ear for the entire run time. The underdog story formula is one that is hard to subvert expectations for (especially one inspired by true events), but when it’s as expertly pulled off, both in a directing and screenplay capacity, like it has been in AIR, then it doesn’t matter how predictable the events may be, because the investment and engagement in the people that this story is about is done with such care and passion, that it’s impossible to not root for everyone involved – even those darn, pesky, money-hungry player agents (however, I will admit, Chris Messina’s Falk has a show-stealing scene with one of his foul-mouthed rants over the phone to Vaccaro that will leave audiences holding their sides in laughter).
Affleck’s direction anchors this film down. Exciting camera movements and energetic set pieces bring the audience along for the ride in a way that feels like everything else in the world doesn’t matter except signing Michael Jordan. Some stories about salesmen and contracts and deals can get bogged down in the ‘dirty sales’ feeling that often comes in these tales. But Affleck approaches Vaccaro, Nike and the situation through such humility and empathy. However, utilising his strength in those tense boardroom meetings showcase his ability as a director to use what he learnt on films like Argo, and apply those same tension building principles in a scene where a group of people are just talking.
Alex Convery’s script is packed with humour as well. The interactions, mostly between the eccentric Phil Knight (Affleck) and Vaccaro provide some well-earned laughs that bring a sense of levity to the story that could have easily been bogged down by extended dialogue scenes that go on and on. But, the script, along with Affleck’s energetic direction, place the humour in those moments, without ever taking away the ‘will he’ or ‘will he not’ sign tension of the contract negotiations. Even the scenes where Damon and Davis are face to face as a salesman trying to land the deal on this crazy venture, and a mother who wants to make sure her super-star son is properly compensated and taken care of, evoke this happy energy because neither of these people are maliciously trying to get deals made. They both want what is best for their people, and that is strongly conveyed through these fantastic performances. Of which in AIR, there are no bad performances at all. Damon leads the ship, supported by an incredible Viola Davis and accompanied by Jason Batemen’s everyman demeanour, Affleck’s shameless eccentricity, Messina’s explosive energy and Marlon Wayans, who despite being in one scene, brings back the desire to see him in more dramatic roles.
AIR is undoubtedly one of the best films 2023 has served up so far. It’s a feel-good, underdog story that comes hot off the heels of everyone’s lockdown obsession, 2020s The Last Dance and the best-selling autobiography of Phil Knight, Shoe Dog, expands on the story of Nike by showcasing the unsung revolutionaries behind the greatest shoe of all time. Injected with heart and humour in abundance, and showcasing career best performances from a stacked cast, this is not a movie to miss in cinemas!
AIR is in cinemas April 5, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
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