There is absolutely no reason the feature film “Air” – released in theaters April 5 – should be such an entertaining and intriguing production. Instead of colorful fantasy settings, this film takes place mostly in board rooms and offices. There are no flashy battles unless you consider the banter between a basketball guru and a sports agent to be riveting. But, the biggest reason the production should be a miss is that the outcome is well known and documented.

“Air” is the story of how basketball legend Michael Jordan became associated with Nike and in the process took the shoe company from third place among footwear competitors to master of the sneaker universe with his Air Jordans. Even the company’s rise to power is relegated to captions at the end of the film.

The movie looks at the efforts by Nike in 1984 to sign an NBA star who would help improve their struggling sales numbers with their basketball shoe division. Because the company has fallen behind Adidas and Converse, they are reduced to signing new NBA players who only have a marginal chance of becoming successful.

A gamble to use the budget that would have gone to three players to sign deals with Nike to sign just one player – Jordan – will either make the company a champion or end their being in the basketball shoe business. The only catch is that Jordan has no interest in Nike.

The major credit for the film being so compelling goes to the writing of Alex Convery and a slam dunk performance by Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike employee who had the vision to see that Jordan would not just be a great basketball player but would end up as one of the greatest.

Convery tells the story but doesn’t pretend the audience has no idea what has happened long before it unfolds on screen. The script is loaded with winks and nods to what everyone knows, such as making a joke that no one would ever want to see longtime sports analyst Charles Barkley on television.

He even has fun with many of the tales swirling around Nike from the selection of the name to creation of the what to call the Air Jordan line. These kinds of moments give the film the touches of levity that keep it from becoming a white collar bore.

A slightly pudgy Damon (a look for the role) elevates what was probably very boring telephone conversations with his passions. He plays Vaccaro as a man who has been under-appreciated, over-looked and discarded all his life. His stint at Nike could be his final chance.

His performance is strong enough to make Affleck’s role as Nike CEO Phil Knight come across as stronger. In Affleck’s defense, he plays Knight as a new age boss who would prefer to understand his own breath more than his employees. It is not a character that grabs much attention.

Affleck’s strength in “Air” is his directing approach. He sets a strong tempo to distract from the monotony of the business world, opts not to show the face of the young Jordan to keep that from becoming the focus and for embracing the ‘80s so deeply. This ranges from an opening montage of iconic images from 1984 to a soundtrack that includes the likes of Dire Straits to Bruce Springsteen.

Even when Vaccaro gives a passionate and prophetic speech that will make or break the deal, the scene is loaded with images from Jordan’s career that highlight each word. It is part of the blasts of nostalgia that permeates the film.

Other places where Damon gets acting bumps are scenes with Viola Davis who plays Jordan’s mother. The Oscar-winning Davis again doesn’t disappoint as she plays her as being strong enough to protect her son but endearing enough to make her likable.

Too often the mothers of superstars are portrayed in movies and TV as being egomaniacs or incompetent. Davis shows in her performance the strength a woman would need to raise one of the greatest sports superstars.

“Air” is the hummingbird of the cinematic world. Everything suggests the hummingbird should not be able to fly but it does. A film about business negotiations should not be fascinating enough to fill a documentary short but in the case of “Air” it soars to the top of the best films released so far in 2023.

Movie review


Grade: A-

Cast: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Chris Messina.

Director: Ben Affleck

Rated: R for language

Running time: 112 minutes.