You don’t have to be a sports name to know the name Michael Jordan, and there is a good chance you’ve even heard of the Air Jordan even if you are not a sneakerhead. What is a little surprising is that someone out there believed that the story about how a shoe could change the sports industry and go on to make the Nike company a multi-billion dollar industry could be a movie that people would actually want to go see. Well, that person was screenwriter Alex Convery, who wrote a screenplay that would make it onto the Hollywood Black List (For those that don’t know, The Black List is a list that comes out every year that ranks the top 10 unproduced screenplays. It’s an elite list to be on, and typically these eventually get turned into films that gain critical acclaim). As it would turn out, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon would get a shot at the script, and after a polish it would become the new film Ben Affleck would direct since the last film he helmed, Live By Night back in 2016. Though Affleck has had a few duds in his career in front of the screen, when it comes to his directing career I feel he’s got a strong record, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo I feel are each great films. Live By Night was a bit of a misstep, but every director has one miss eventually, so when I saw he was going to be directing Air, though I wasn’t quite excited about the story, I was excited to see that he’d be directing again. What I didn’t see coming was just how good this film would be, and it is no surprise why Amazon Studios elected to give this film a theatrical run rather than dump it onto its Prime streaming service.
The opening credits of the film do a fantastic job of setting the tone of the film and hitting us with a montage of pop culture events that were taking place in 1984. Then we get to meet Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). He’s an executive with Nike who is pretty much a talent scout for the company. At this point Nike is a bit of a joke in the sports world, with Converse and Adidas leading in shoe sales with big names like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the face to their product. The basketball line of shoes is about to be shut down if Nike can’t manage to score big, and it’s up to Sonny to find the perfect athlete to promote their line of shoes and keep them in the shoe game. In other words, this film is pretty much an underdog story. All the companies are looking to secure this new rookie for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan. Nike just can’t compete with the big names, but Sonny is desperate and feels they can attain greatness if they can somehow manage to court Jordan to sign with them. Literally that is the plot of this film, and we all know how it is going to end, so what’s the point in watching? It’s really as simple as seeing the men behind the scenes and just how much of a risk they took to make it all happen. Then there is the solid cast, the fantastic script, and the attention to detail that Affleck and his team brought together to create this film.
I can’t help but feel like I was watching this generation’s version of Jerry Maguire, only this film doesn’t have the romance angle. Sonny isn’t on his own when trying to court Jordan. There’s Howard White (Chris Tucker), head of basketball talent, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), the VP of Marketing for Nike, then there is Philip Knight (Ben Affleck), the CEO of Nike. These guys just chew up their scenes together. The dialog is so sharp it reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross at times the way you just got to enjoy actors working at the top of their game. Because a good portion of the film takes place at the Nike headquarters, it does put a lot of the pressure on the actors to make this work, and they deliver.
What’s a little crazy about this film, and this was definitely a choice that was made early on, but for a film that is pretty much centered around Michael Jordan, we don’t even really get to see him. When he is on screen, it is mostly through old game footage, and in the few scenes where he is in the room, there is only a partial profile shot of him. Despite that, his presence is still felt in just about every scene of this film, which I find a bit remarkable. Who we do get to see is Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), who is Michael’s mothe,r and James Jordan (Julius Tennon), his father. Deloris is the gatekeeper for Michael. All the corporations that are looking to sign with Michael have to go through her, and Sonny has to do what he can to win her over. Davis is fantastic here. One of my favorite moments in this film is between Sonny and Deloris as they are talking in her backyard discussing how future business meetings will go with the rival shoe companies. It’s not a flashy scene; it’s just Damon and Davis sharing a fun and charming performance together. We don’t even get to see Deloris have an interaction with her son, but we still can see that love and appreciation she has for him in every scene she’s in.
One of cinema’s all time great cinematographers, Robert Richardson, was in charge of shooting this film. He’s worked with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, just to name a few of the directors he’s worked with. I’m a little bit surprised to see him working on this film, but the more I think about it, it’s because of his visual style that he’s able to capture the 80’s aesthetic so well, and when the film shifts to North Carolina, he’s able to capture the country beauty. To go along with the visuals it would be criminal of me to not mention the fantastic soundtrack that was put together for this film.
In no way would I call myself a basketball fan nowadays, but in the 90’s I remember the influence Jordan had. I was a fan back then, and it was interesting to see just how much things changed in the marketing of athletes because of him. Walking out of this film, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and that I’m actually looking forward to seeing it again. I don’t think you even have to like sports to appreciate this film. I’m not so crazy to say this is the best movie of the year, but it certainly had the best screenplay at least, as well as some great performances from the cast. This is another movie that has me eagerly wanting to see what Ben Affleck will direct next. If his career continues in this direction, I feel he will definitely be known as one of the great directors of our time.