Reflections on Affleck’s “Air”

When I first watched the trailer of Ben Affleck’s most recent film, “Air” (2023), I thought that my first screening would involve several sittings on my laptop. I couldn’t imagine myself, an increasingly jaded and lazy second-semester senior, actually venturing out to a theater at all, especially not for a film about literal business transactions. To everyone’s surprise, even to the surprise of my parents, my friend and I went to a screening after I received an email that was not a scam, and was indeed an invitation to a free screening. 

“Air” was released in theaters on April 5, 2023. The film stars Matt Damon as Sonny Vacacaro, a singularly-minded college basketball aficionado that for some reason is the brunt of at least four fat jokes; Ben Affleck as the brightly dressed CEO of Nike, Phil Knight; Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser, the only Nike basketball employee given any kind of backstory, distilled to one heart-wrenching line; Chris Tucker as Howard White, the source of nearly every joke in the film purely due to his delivery; Chris Messina as David Falk, Michael Jordan’s narcissistic agent with an extreme potty mouth; and finally, Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother and source of wisdom. There are a handful of other characters, but that sentence was getting just a bit too long for them all. 

The story of “Air” is aptly named. It follows the monumental deal that brought Air Jordan, Nike’s basketball line, to life, but almost everything about the situation is hard to imagine. Affleck begins the story with a montage of 80s capitalism, bright and grainy and something more apt for a documentary than a dramedy. When the reality of the film was finally revealed – with Matt Damon in muted neutrals – in the stands of a high-school basketball game, all I noticed was that everything in the scene looked very blue. In a few short sequences we are shown a few things about Sonny that are carried throughout the rest of the film: he knows basketball, he has no family or friends, and he is willing to gamble both literally or figuratively. Next, we are shown Nike’s headquarters, where a majority of the film will take place. It is sleek and strikingly decorated, walls adorned with life-size images of famous athletes – all professional runners. This is the Nike that I heard about as a child, that grew from the University of Oregon, that built a shoe that would win championships on a track. 

At this exact point in the film, it couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes in, I was pondering two distinct things that would ultimately determine if this movie would be something I’d enjoy or not: racially, who is this story centered on – is this the story of how a white-controlled brand makes the most famous basketball player of all time, or is it the other way around? And if the power lies in Michael Jordan, where is he?  

As the world inside Nike headquarters was slowly built through snappy conversations between Sonny and his co-workers, the novelty of Michael Jordan’s absence wore off. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Jason Bateman filled the space with Affleck’s pink and purple outfits, Damon’s fast-talking desperation, and Bateman’s luscious hair. Each character had a certain dry wit that carried throughout, making a film that could have been monotonous infinitely more entertaining. 

The second act saw Sonny traveling to Wilmington, North Carolina, Jordan’s hometown. In a scene that is just as strange as it sounds, Viola Davis (Deloris Jordan) talked to Sonny at a picnic table in their backyard, with the notion that Michael was just inside the house, remaining unseen. It is clear by this point that Sonny has taken his gambling to a new level, something that Nike’s basketball division desperately needs. Davis is commanding as Deloris, and from this point to the rest of the film, she becomes Jordan’s guardian angel, the will behind his star-power. Here, the story of Air Jordan takes on a new shape: a miraculous deal struck between a mother utterly confident in her son’s abilities and a man that similarly recognizes his potential. As Davis says in the meeting in which the new shoe is revealed, “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it.” My questions at the beginning of the film were being answered, and my worries were slowly assuaged. Even without Michael Jordan’s face, his presence and power was backed by Davis’s performance and conviction.

A conference room becomes an arena for impassioned speeches and verbal sparring, and a darkened room becomes the birthplace of the famed sneaker itself. There is something magical in the shaking of hands and making of deals, especially when we, the audience, know what will ultimately come of them: a basketball line that is worth more money than anyone could initially imagine.   

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