Director-actor Ben Affleck puts points on the board with Air Jordan origin story ‘Air’

Not too long ago I was seated on my couch, eyes glued to Game 1 of the Cavaliers vs Knicks, the opening night of the NBA playoffs. It went down to the wire with the Cavs’ Donovan Mitchell and the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson playing tug of war for the win with each jump shot and each floater. On screen was a nail-biting game 1 to a highly anticipated playoff series, but it wasn’t what I was focused on. I was looking at the players’ shoes. Eight out of ten players on the court were wearing Nike. The next day, I was watching the Grizzlies vs the Lakers and observed the same pattern: again, eight out of ten players were wearing Nike. That evening, I was watching the Heat vs the Bucks: nine out of ten players were wearing Nike. 

Nike’s near monopoly of the basketball world is a cornerstone of the game. So much so that it seems as if it is one of life’s eternal certainties. Yet, it wasn’t always that way. 

Ben Affleck takes us to 1984: Michael Jordan is the Bulls’ new rookie and Nike is a mere footnote in a basketball world that was dominated by Converse and Adidas. Nike’s basketball division is on its last leg. We see Nike executives analyzing the ‘84 draft class in search of the players that will lift their basketball division to prestige. First in the draft, Hakeem Olajuwon, is out of their budget. Second in the draft, Sam Bowie, is out of their budget. Third in the draft, Michael Jordan, out of their budget. As they go down the list to the later lottery picks they hastily throw out names of future nobodies whether that be Melvin Turpin or Matt McCormick. Along with the nobodies are future legends like Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and the aforementioned Hakeem Olajuwon, but even they could not be quite the lifeline that Nike was in search of. Only Mike could fill those shoes.

Knowing what we know, Michael Jordan’s name sticks out amongst the others like there are flashing arrows all around it, like signing him is a no-brainer, like they should put each and every chip they have into him. But at the time, he was just another draftee coming out of a few years of college. None of the clueless executives in the room have the foresight to know he’d be the greatest basketball player ever and one of the biggest brands in the world; no one but Sonny Vacarro, Air’s endearing and beer-bellied protagonist (Matt Damon). The life-long friendship and chemistry between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck is evident throughout Air, not only on-screen but with Affleck’s work with Damon from the director’s chair.

Frustrated and on the verge of unemployment, Vacarro finds himself watching Jordan’s University of North Carolina film. Vacarro is sucked in, infatuated by Jordan’s aura, and overtaken by a sixth sense of Jordan’s potential. He can’t look away, and he can’t get it out of his mind either.

Vacarro tells everyone what he saw but they don’t believe him. The clerk at Vacarro’s local cornerstore says Jordan is too small. Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) disapproves of putting all chips toward MJ, and his fellow sneaker division coworkers Robert Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) don’t want to risk their jobs on a longshot either.

One of the Air’s earliest scenes sees Sonny gambling on a Lakers game at a Casino. Though it is a bit on the nose, it is a moment of character-writing that perfectly sets down his philosophy that drives the film. Sonny is a gambler, and Jordan is his biggest yet. The risk is his job and potentially Nike’s entire basketball division. The reward is so colossal that he couldn’t even comprehend the full scope of it all at the time, no one could’ve. It is a gamble he takes and Air details the journey.

Damon plays Sonny in a levelheaded and lovable manner. The average joe character archetype serves as a bold contrast against  the many out there and colorful characters of the basketball world that he clashes with on his mission to sign Jordan. Whether that be his boss, the barefooted and tracksuited Nike CEO and business mogul Phil Knight, or the nerdy and lisped shoe designer (Peter Moore) that crafts the Air Jordans who is so cartoonish that it’s almost tacky, or Jordan’s hotheaded agent David Falk (Chris Messina) that does everything in his power to stop Jordan from meeting with Nike, a brand Jordan is bluntly not interested in.

Most notable of Air’s performances is Viola Davis who puts up the film’s most promising bid at an Oscar. A beyond-desperate Sonny resorts to showing up at the Jordan household’s doorsteps. He’s greeted by Jordan’s mother, played by Davis. Sonny’s conversations and negotiations with Jordan’s watchful and intelligent mother give the film a potency, aided by a graceful performance from Davis. Viola Davis was specially requested by Jordan, and it isn’t hard to see why.

Michael Jordan himself is never portrayed in Air. The most we see of him, apart from official NCAA footage, is the back of his head awkwardly positioned towards the camera during his meetings with Nike. Air avoids showing his face so much that it feels distracting. Unfortunately, Director Ben Affleck was posed with a lose-lose situation. Either attempt portray someone as mythic and legendary as Michael Jordan which could easily backfire while also taking away from the main focus of the film, his shoes; or never show Michael Jordan at all and leave the audience confused. It is a poor hand to be dealt as a filmmaker, and Affleck played the latter choice.


Though each and every attendee to see Air knows the result, it sometimes still felt like it wouldn’t happen, but it does, and the result is lucrative. It is fascinating source material and rookie screenwriter and Chicagoland native Alex Convery does it justice. Through and through, it’s an entertaining and endearing watch and for the early months of the calendar that are often desert-dry for cinema, it’s hard to ask for more.

Though he has a best picture winner to his directorial resumé with Argo (2012), which is more than most, veteran- actor Ben Affleck’s identity as a director has always been in crisis. While it remains undefined, Affleck is rapidly establishing a reputation of quality. The Town (2010) is a nail-biting heist flick, Argo is an intense political-thriller, and Air is another noteworthy addition to his building filmography. In a time where it feels there is no longer a middle ground between trashy blockbuster sequels and Oscar-aspiring arthouse films, Affleck’s no-nonsense and straight-forward moviemaking is welcomed with open-arms.


For the young and uninformed crowd such as myself, Air is fueled by fascinating source material, that a brand that now has a near monopoly on basketball gear was once undesirable and on the brink of extinction.

For the young and uninformed crowd such as myself, Air is fueled by fascinating source material, that a brand that now has a near monopoly on basketball gear was once undesirable and on the brink of extinction. For the older crowd, Air is a trip down memory lane laden with 80’s pop culture which can sometimes feel cheap but also enhances the atmosphere of the film. 

That is why Air’s reception has been so resoundingly positive. Regardless of who you are, it is a crowdpleaser, even if you’re not blown away, as I wasn’t quite. Air may not be a windmill dunk or a 30-foot game winner but it is a clean mid-range fadeaway. Not highlight-reel worthy, but always satisfying.