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Film Review: “Air” Soars on Charm and Wit

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 4th, 2023

Film poster: “Air”

Air (Ben Affleck, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.

Michael Jordan, considered the best basketball player of all time, got his proper cinematic due with director Jason Hehir’s 10-part 2020 docuseries The Last Dance. Now comes a treatment of the story behind the shoe that bears his name. Focusing almost exclusively on the Nike employees who risked it all and changed the sneaker game for good—with Jordan’s mother, Deloris, playing no small role—Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, Air, proves effortlessly entertaining from start to finish, though it could use some editing, especially towards the end. Featuring an appealing cast, including Affleck (The Tender Bar) as Nike CEO Phil Knight, it’s a comedic thriller all the way through.

Matt Damon (Stillwater) plays Sonny Vaccaro, who, when the film begins in 1984, is working at Nike running their basketball division, which is not doing well. Known at the time primarily as a successful manufacturer of running shoes, Nike is far behind Converse and Adidas when it comes to hoops footwear. Vaccaro would like to change that, but in order to do so he needs a rising star of the game to accept their endorsement. With only $250,000 allocated to his team, there’s no way they can afford to get any of the top draft picks that year. On the other hand, maybe there is.

l-r: Matt Damon and Viola Davis in AIR ©Amazon Content Services LLC

The film follows Vaccaro as he recklessly (as others see it) pursues his hunch that Michael Jordan, fresh out of UNC Chapel Hill and drafted by the Chicago Bulls, is the next great sensation. We never see or hear much of Jordan here, except from behind or in profile or via archival footage of his actual games. Very much at the center of the story, he does not drive the plot. Instead, what ensues is a graceful pas de deux between Vaccaro and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis, The Woman King), the real power behind the throne (actually, she’s the queen). We watch as Vaccaro attempts to woo the family away from their top two choices, Converse and Adidas.

Joining the ensemble are Jason Bateman (Game Night), Matthew Maher (The Outside Story), Chris Messina (The Aviary), and Chris Tucker (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), among others, each bringing their own unique chemistry. As high as the stakes may be, they remain equally funny and serious, as individual scenes require (well, perhaps not Messina, playing a sports agent whose job is to be as crude as he can). Affleck keeps the narrative moving in mostly engaging ways, even as we know the eventual outcome. After all, we live in the world that Michael Jordan and Nike built.

Ben Affleck in AIR ©Amazon Content Services LLC

The result is a winning, cinematic romp through 1980s nostalgia and the joy of innovative creation. And though Air could use fewer music cues—it seems like every sequence has its own licensed pop tune—the fun of it all trumps the majority of these quibbles. It’s not perfect, but leaps high over the bar it sets in tone and ambition. Breathe deeply of its charm.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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