Air review: Ben Affleck's nostalgic love letter to the '80s is a slam dunk

An all-star cast make this story about Michael Jordan, his game-changing shoes and Nike's marketing a sports film for the ages

Ben Affleck in Air, a film about the beginnings of Nike and Michael Jordan's now multibillion-dollar relationship. Photo: Amazon Content Services
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Ben Affleck’s new film Air, which he directs and stars in, begins like a love letter to the 1980s. Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing wails on the soundtrack, as a montage flashes past the audience's eyes: clips from Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters are mixed in with pictures of former US president Ronald Reagan and the lasagne-loving cartoon cat Garfield.

It couldn’t be a more 80s-centric sequence if it’d put on leg warmers. Still, it’s an energetic way to launch this engaging tale about one of the biggest corporate coups of the decade.

AIR

Director: Ben Affleck

Stars: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis

Rating: 4/5

The year is 1984 and the setting is America’s Pacific Northwest, at sports shoe company Nike's headquarters. In the world of professional basketball, they have a measly 17 per cent market share — meaning all the major players from the NBA sign with rival brands like adidas and Converse. Nike is seen as a running shoe for white middle-class Americans, not one supported by many basketball pros — many of whom were black and working class.

In charge of changing that is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), regarded at the company as the “Mr Miyagi of high school basketball” for his knowledge of the scene. Joining him is Howard White (Chris Tucker), the vice president of Basketball Athlete Relations. Also present is marketing chief Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman). And right at the top is Phil Knight (Affleck), the chief executive who drives a Porsche but still subscribes to the go-getting ethics that defined the company.

With the pressure on him, Vaccaro decides he wants to court rising star Michael Jordan — just as he was moving from college basketball to the NBA. When he contacts Jordan’s bullish agent David Falk (Chris Messina), he’s told flat out that Jordan wants to sign with adidas, but Vaccaro won’t take no for an answer.

First, he breaks convention by visiting Jordan’s parents (Viola Davis and her real-life actor husband Julius Tennon), a move that sends the volatile Falk apoplectic with rage. Yet with Knight uncertain whether to gamble their $250,000 budget on just one player, Vaccaro is forced to think outside the shoe box.

So begins the creation of one of the decade’s best-known products: the Air Jordan. It feels like a bizarre idea to build a movie around the creation of a pair of trainers, but there’s something quite magical about their enthusiasm, especially when they team up with Nike’s leading designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher).

The splash of red added to the design is even a violation of NBA rules — a $5,000 fine would have to be paid if Jordan even steps on a court wearing them. “You’re remembered for the rules you break,” says Knight, who pads around the office barefoot and seems more worried about a man on a skateboard in the parking lot scratching his Porsche than he does about signing Jordan.

Aside from the nostalgia blast of '80s music on the soundtrack (ZZ Top, Grandmaster Flash, Harold Faltermeyer), what knits this together are the performances. Damon and Affleck, famed for their career-making turns in Good Will Hunting, reunited in 2021 for Ridley Scott’s middling medieval saga The Last Duel, but this feels like a far better use of their talents. Affleck, who hasn’t directed since his troubled 2016 gangster picture Live By Night, seems to be particularly enjoying himself.

It helps, of course, when you have Oscar-winner Davis in your cast — her quiet ferocity as Jordan’s mother is something to behold. Messina is also glorious as Falk, a man who gives Brian Cox’s Logan Roy — the no-nonsense patriarch in TV hit Succession — a run for his money when it comes to hurling a tirade of insults. Likewise, Marlon Wayans as influential coach George Raveling gets only one scene, but truly makes it count. Maybe it’s the retro vibe, maybe it's the soundtrack, maybe it's both, but there’s something enjoyably old school in this — a film that deals with dreams, ambitions and athletes getting a fair share of what’s coming to them.

Air will be released in UAE cinemas on Thursday

Updated: April 05, 2023, 3:04 AM
AIR

Director: Ben Affleck

Stars: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis

Rating: 4/5