Air, the new film by director Ben Affleck, focuses solely on the business side of professional sports. Comparisons to Moneyball are sure to be made but this is a breezier, funnier film more about the American pursuit of greatness. Based on the events that resulted in Nike signing future legend Michael Jordan in 1984, the film is an exhilarating depiction of how a gut feeling can pay off.
The campaign to sign was driven by Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), s pudgy straight-shooter who refuses to back down from what he thinks is the best move. He sees, before many, the potential of Jordan and believes he will be a star. Converse and Adidas both want Jordan as well. While Nike has almost no impact on the basketball market, Adidas and Converse are major players in it. The odds are stacked against Nike here. Sonny's partners in this are Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker). Both of them think Sonny is nuts but they also recognize his conviction. The two biggest obstacles to the deal are Jordan's agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and Jordan's mother Deloris (Viola Davis). Sonny quickly sees Falk as a dead-end street and decides to attempt to persuade Mrs. Jordan. Sonny also has to convince CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) that this is worth giving the entire budget for the basketball division to Jordan.
While we know the eventual outcome, the film wisely avoids trying to build a great deal of tension around if the deal will happen. Instead, Affleck's good instincts shift the focus to a sense of fascination with how all of these pieces had to fall into place. The real-life participants contributed to the film and the result is something that feels more honest than the typical "based on a real story" film. Jordan is kept off-screen to avoid the focus being on some young actor portraying the legend. Air is not really about the legends here, it is about the guys who worked tirelessly on something they believed in.
Two of the film's highlights are the dialogue and the performances. The script isn't chock-full of jokes but the actor's interplay finds loads of humor here. Sonny dealing with Knight's pseudo-enlightenment or the foul-mouthed agent yield great back-and-forth exchanges. At the center of the film is a knockout performance from Matt Damon. He sheds the Bourne vibes and plays a middle-aged guy who doesn't take care of himself. It is a refreshing role for one of our better actors. Viola Davis is another highlight, showing the strength Mrs. Jordan had in protecting her son's future.
Air is so breezy it could be easy to dismiss Affleck's direction but this type of film is hard to pull off so well. He keeps things clear, the pace moving at a great click, and gives several actors moments to shine. The passion for basketball comes through in the film but Affleck keeps the focus on regular people trying to do their jobs well. Perhaps Affleck gets a little carried away with the nostalgia. The sheer amount of 80's icons here combined with a soundtrack full of hits from the period can be a little much. However, most of the time, Air is a blast.