Matt Damon and Viola Davis in Air

Air Review: A Star-Driven Crowd Pleaser

We all have Michael Jordan to thank for Air. Not for making the film, obviously, but for casting Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan. She carries the film, guiding her onscreen son between offers from Nike, Adidas, and Converse. You already know which decision Jordan made (hence the Nike Air Jordan line), but Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Nike CEO Phil Knight’s (Ben Affleck) chase is infectious fun. Even if the audience knows where the film is going, it’s hard to care because the performances are that good.

In a reunion much lighter and more enjoyable than The Last DuelAir pairs Affleck and Damon together again. This time in tracksuits and tennis shoes (no swords or sandals). And that easy chemistry between actors elevates Air too. And not just between Damon and Affleck, who’ve been onscreen together since 1992 (School Ties), but between the ensemble at large. Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon, plays James Jordan Sr. bringing warmth and humour to a man gone too early. Jason Bateman plays glue guy Rob Strasser, who bounces off every character with aplomb. Bateman has experience from his years on Arrested Development dispensing wisecracks quickly, a skill he uses deftly here.

It’s 1984, and Nike languishes behind Converse and Adidas on the basketball front. So distantly that Phil Knight contemplates shutting down the division entirely. Sonny Vaccaro is in charge of recommending players in the upcoming draft, and he has a proposition, albeit a risky one. Take the entire budget for the rookie class and give it to the 3rd overall pick (man, Portland wants that choice back), Michael Jordan. Fellow execs Howard White (Chris Tucker, in his first film since Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Strasser are less than convinced. Jordan might not even sign, a mistake that could bankrupt the company.

If Jordan’s agent advises him against the deal, Sonny has a backup plan. White tells Vaccaro the key to success is to “go through the mama.” So Sonny talks to the one person with Jordan’s ear: his mother. As Jordan’s manager, David Falk, Chris Messina rips the scenery off the walls, tearing into Vaccaro with intensity early and often. With little to compete against the other major shoe companies, Nike offers Jordan $250,000 (doubling the next closest offer) and, more importantly, the signature shoe. Affleck sprinkles ’80s nostalgia throughout Air for those who were there and recognizable needle drops for everyone who wasn’t. As obvious as some music choices are, it’s the production design that instantly brings you back in time. 


Set to “Money for Nothing,” Affleck delivers a grainy montage of everything the 1980s had to offer. While a good deal of that decade is instantly identifiable, much of the sports apparel of the time was homogenous. Adidas, Nike, and Converse produced different clothes, yet nothing unique. As Sonny and Rob develop the first Air Jordan, they reflect that companies always pretended to put the player first but never do, reinforcing the hegemony of placing the company name above all else. It wasn’t until Nike offered Jordan the opportunity to give feedback on his namesake shoe that athletes felt seen. That’s when creativity started taking hold of athletic wear.

Affleck directs a feature for the first time in seven years, putting the calamity of the DCEU behind him. He made his name directing thrillers with a visual flourish but with Air, the camera movement is sparse, and the editing is non-stylized; the actors and the script take the glory. A walk-and-talk movie depicting professionals at the top of their game. Think of Air as a companion piece to Moneyball. But instead of watching Brad Pitt put together a winning team on a budget, we witness hustlers take a rookie and a shoe and turn it into the cultural entity that Air Jordans are today. Sometimes the underdog can win and upset the establishment (we’ll momentarily ignore that the underdog later became an international monolith).

“Based on a true story” can often inspire apathy, but when the point of view is one we haven’t heard before, it can transcend the biopic genre. Deloris Jordan is the savvy force that drives Air‘s narrative. “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it,” she tells the Nike brass. Her premonition may seem like a mother having faith in her son, but no doubt Deloris knew Michael would change the NBA into the international game it is today. The fiery speech Davis gives about players (deservedly) making money off their image only feels like it’s coming true now.

Michael Jordan doesn’t appear in the film, his face hidden from camera. Smart choice considering one of the most recognizable men in the world couldn’t be played by an actor or recreated by motion capture. That would’ve taken audiences out of the flow of the film immediately. Instead, Affleck reworked the script to carve out a standout performance for Davis.


Michael Jordan’s shoe line moved the needle considerably in the inequity of player relations within a sport. If you scratch the surface, Air also reads as a metaphor for the current state of filmmaking. The streaming age is all about the algorithm and upfront fees for onscreen talent. What Affleck and Damon suggest with Artists Equity, the production shingle behind Air, is that revenue sharing can extend beyond sports.

The problem with the current theatrical model can be distilled into a single frame. Knight, a man who built a company from the trunk of his car, took his company public and became one of the wealthiest men on Earth. Yet he now rambles about balances and shareholders alone in a hallway. Similarly, studios are less concerned with compelling stories than they are building franchises. If Artists Equity revolutionizes movies like Air Jordans did with shoes, we might see changes in the cineplex. If not, Affleck and Damon can rest assured knowing that Air is one of the most rousing sports films ever made.

Air opens in theatres April 5.