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Review: 'Air' Introduces Legends By Way of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon

"World class players don't wear third class shoes."

You could call it a biopic. You could call it a behind the scenes look at the financial side of sports. You could even call it an underdog story that circles arguably the greatest living athlete to date.

Whatever you want to call it, "Air" soars beyond any measure imaginable for a predominantly business-focused sports film. It's just that good.

Directed by Ben Affleck, "Air" marks another achievement in the likely partnership between Bostonians Affleck and lead star Matt Damon. This time, the duo resides in Beaverton, Oregon, at the headquarters of Nike, where most of this film takes place. Damon portrays Sonny Vaccaro, a marketing executive at the company whose primary focus is its fledgling Basketball division. Affleck costars as namaste guru Nike owner Phil Knight, who in the mid-1980s is trying to steer his organization back to its running shoe roots rather than invest in Basketball, where high-profile players are choosing to wear Converse or Adidas shoes on the court. Even just trying to get a meeting with Michael Jordan is a wasted effort in Knight's playbook.

"Air" is an A-list ensemble drama with Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Matthew Maher, and Chris Tucker all playing integral roles in developing and negotiating with Michael Jordan's family to convince the young phenom to do business with the third-ranked athletic shoe company. Compared to Converse and Adidas, Nike is seen as a laughing stock during this time in American sports history, which is hysterical during much of the film, knowing what we all know now about how popular Jordan shoes are some 40 years later.

The real kicker to this premise, which illustrates how Nike went into business with Michael Jordan just as the player entered the NBA, is Viola Davis, who plays Deloris Jordan, MJ's mother. It is rumored that Jordan himself wouldn't sign off on this film unless Davis portrayed his mother, to which the legend clearly has a good eye for talent. Davis is remarkable as Mrs. Jordan, conveying levity to what could have been a stale movie about business tactics and negotiation techniques. Alongside her real-life husband, Julius Tennon, who portrays MJ's father, James Jordan Sr., Davis represents the Jordan family in most scenes when MJ's face and voice aren't present.

"A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it," as Davis remarks in character at one point. It hits true to MJ's legacy in a way no other piece of dialogue between Sonny and Mrs. Jordan does.

The option not to show Michael Jordan for most of the flick is an interesting one. That is because Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery make specific choices while showcasing all of the skills that went into this iconic business deal between a low-rated shoe company and what would become the most recognizable athlete in the world. The movie does a tremendous job of making sure its audience understands that while Michael Jordan was once a sought-after prospect from North Carolina, he wasn't the top draft pick, and his position as a soon-to-be guard for the Chicago Bulls in 1984 wasn't exactly the hottest commodity in athletic endorsements. It was also another time when the NBA had rules against how much color can be shown on a shoe, that it was unheard of for an athlete to get a percentage of the shoe's sale, and that families weren't necessarily courted along with the player in meetings.

The success of "Air" comes down to Ben Affleck's direction and Matt Damon's power as an actor in pivotal moments. There is one pointed scene where Damon's Sonny explains to MJ how the rest of his personal and professional life will play out, regardless of how inspiring a figure he will undoubtedly be. Affleck uses quick cuts over a montage of events in the future roller coaster that becomes MJ's existence in Basketball just as Sonny is desperate to land the plane during the film's climatic negotiating table. It's superb.

In a world full of agents, marketing techniques, reputations, and money to be made, "Air" understands all the many players it took to make Nike an iconic brand associated with sports. While everyone in the conference room that much of the film depicts will be forgotten with time, Michael Jordan lives on in infamy due to his mother's decisions just before he entered the NBA. As controversial of a figure as he became in the years since, there's no denying how much this one deal changed how today's athletes approach their respective games.

Ben Affleck perfectly captures these decisions, carefully constructs a presentation worthy of authenticity, and executes it masterfully.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟🎟🎟


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