Movie review: 'Air' crafts exciting sports, shoe, business tale

Ben Affleck plays Phil Knight in "Air." Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
1 of 5 | Ben Affleck plays Phil Knight in "Air." Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

LOS ANGELES, March 22 (UPI) -- Air, in theaters April 5, makes a story about sports and the shoe business as understandable as possible to viewers who follow neither. The film shows how the story of the sneaker led to revolutionary changes in the history of athletic spokespeople.

In 1984, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) was a marketing executive for Nike's basketball division. Vaccaro's idea to sign Michael Jordan to represent the company's basketball shoes was controversial at the time Jordan was drafted to play for the Chicago Bulls.


Today, one need not follow sports or shoes to recognize the Air Jordan. Air successfully conveys what an unknown quantity Nike and Jordan were in 1984.

Vaccaro, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, who also directed) and other Nike executives discuss the company's market share, the budget allocated to the basketball division and players in the 1984 NBA Draft.


Like another sports business story, Moneyball, the Air script by Alex Convery shows professionals discuss their industry specifically with jargon. The rhythm of their speech and sense of humor keeps scenes energetic and easy to follow.

Vaccaro first has to convince his bosses that Jordan is a good idea before he begins to approach the player. While negotiating with Jordan's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), Vaccaro has to haggle over terms while knowing that Knight has not given him authority to make an offer.

Convery and Affleck assign the actual Nike executives cinematic roles in the narrative. Knight becomes a bit of comic relief. Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) becomes the heart as he conveys to Vaccaro what is at stake if they lose Jordan.

VP of Athlete Relations Howard White (Chris Tucker) becomes a bit of a mentor, not necessarily condoning Vaccaro's ambition, but sharing useful wisdom. Shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) becomes like Q in a James Bond movie, pivotal but isolated from the action.

Jordan gradually transforms from a rookie the bosses wrote off to the white whale Vaccaro must capture. Affleck does such a skillful job keeping Jordan off screen that his invisibility becomes part of the film's charm.


It's easy to focus on Vaccaro meeting Jordan's parents (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon) with their son in a different room. When Jordan is in meetings, he's still framed off camera.

When Jordan ultimately meets with Nike, he keeps his back toward all of the main characters. By that point, Air is so aggressively obscuring Jordan, it is winkingly teasing the viewer that the very subject of the movie is beyond even the movie's grasp.

The deal Jordan ultimately makes is a first for athletic sponsorship. The movie also conveys how smart the Jordans were, and how much work still needs to be done toward equitability in the sporting industry.

Negotiations remain tense even when the viewer knows the historical outcome of the deal. Air shows how the Air Jordan not only changed basketball and sneakers, but the business world itself.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.


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