‘Air’ Review: Damon and Davis Cement a Legacy

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight
Photo via Amazon Studios

As a kid who grew up in Chicago during the Bulls’ meteoric dynasty, Michael Jordan’s legacy had a huge effect on me. That admiration continues to this day, but it was also something that helped me memorise Roman numerals as a kid, understand marketing and storytelling through products, and learn about all sorts of technical performance features that go into creating the ultimate basketball shoe. Honestly, this love set the foundation of my career in sneakers. In a way, I feel like I owe my livelihood to Michael Jordan. And that made my experience with Air pretty damn intoxicating.

My kid brother and me in Bulls gear

Making biopics is undoubtedly challenging, especially for those focused on sports – let alone one based on the Greatest Of All Time. Doubly so, considering that Jordan signing with Nike didn’t just shape the sneaker scene but also played a part in making sports and pop culture the forces they are today. So when the trailer for Air hit the web last month, I was sceptical.

Sure, Matt Damon is as talented as they come, but envisioning Jason Bourne as Sonny Vaccaro? Or Ben Affleck as Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight? I like some of Damon’s and Affleck’s movies, but what the fuck do they know about sneakers? At first, Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother, Deloris, was the only casting that seemed fitting. Fortunately, I caught an early screening of Air and left the theatre pleasantly surprised.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight (via Amazon Studios)

Despite Damon looking nothing like Vaccaro, his performance just worked. While Vaccaro seems like a bombastic and flamboyant person in reality, Damon gave him a softer and more nuanced edge that, although different, boded well for creating a likeable character. Stories of how difficult Vaccaro was to work with are a part of the former executive’s lore, and even though the film captures that, Damon’s performance reflects Vaccaro’s pure conviction in Jordan excellently. Affleck, who also directed the film, did a great job setting the table and transporting us to 1984, with the colour grading, fashion, and 80s vibes permeating the screen. Of course, Affleck does what he does best: play the charming asshole.

During his time as CEO, Knight became more risk averse – worrying more about the company staying afloat rather than disrupting the status quo and taking risks, which was, ironically, the thing that led Nike to success in the first place. At the time, Knight was conflicted, wanting to please the board but seemingly losing his identity in the process. Screenwriter Alex Convery accurately scripted the constant, back-and-forth banter between Knight and Vacarro, effectively showcasing how stubborn the two were as business partners.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan (via Amazon Studios)

Although Jordan wasn’t involved in the film’s production, he gave Affleck his blessing along with two requests: former Nike executive and long-time friend Howard White be featured in the movie, and Viola Davis was to be cast as his mother. Air focuses primarily on Damon’s character, Chris Tucker plays Howard White, but Davis steals the show. The belief Michael’s mother had in his potential is not an especially loud or rambunctious one, but she was always adamant that her son was going to be special. Granted, many mothers would say the same thing about their own kids, but Davis’ performance embodied it through sheer confidence, solidifying her place as one of this generation’s greatest actors.

Michael Jordan’s legacy is forever cemented in the pantheon of greats. But even after the swathe of documentaries and stories about His Airness, Air did his legacy justice, and it’s a welcome addition to MJ’s lore.

After the lights came up and my girlfriend and I discussed the film, I couldn’t help but think there should be a sequel about Tinker Hatfield and how, thanks to the Air Jordan 3, he managed to save MJ from leaving the Swoosh. Someone get Ed Norton on the phone!

Air hits theatre in the US and Canada on April 5, 2023, with an Amazon Prime release following in the weeks after.

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