Whilst its status as a corporate exercise is unavoidable, Ben Affleck's nostalgic underdog story has laughs and charm in spades
It’s not entirely unheard of for shoes to compete for top billing in a film – just ask the pairs worn by Cinderella, Dorothy, or The Red Shoes’s Victoria Page – but a specific pair that you could go out and buy for yourself right now? That’s the unusual premise offered by Ben Affleck’s Air, a corporate tie-in “biopic” of the origins of Nike’s Air Jordan brand that does struggle to escape the basic, “really? they made a movie of that?” questions, but just about succeeds off the back of its exceptionally charismatic and charming cast.
Air takes us back to 1984, when Nike’s basketball shoe division was on the verge of failure, needing a real Hail Mary to get back in the game and compete with the big guns of Converse and Adidas. This came in the form of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who saw the future of basketball in then-rookie Michael Jordan, gambling his and his team’s entire career on signing him. We follow Sonny’s wheeling and dealing, convincing first the CEO of Nike, Phil Knight (Affleck, having a blast) and then the Jordan family, headed up by matriarch Deloris (Viola Davis).
Of course, we already know how this is going to play out, and screenwriter Alex Convery struggles to wring many thrills out of this story. It’s one thing to build tension towards a foregone conclusion, harder still to do so when that conclusion is the signing of a business sponsorship deal. It means the major climactic moments do land with a bit of a thud, and Air could have been a bit of a slog if it didn’t have just the right ensemble to bring this, let’s be honest, feature-length advert to life.
Luckily, Affleck has assembled a crack team. It’s always a joy to see him and Damon on screen together and Damon is lovable and funny as the keenly insightful but schlubby Sonny, while Affleck is always styled hilariously as Knight. Davis brings the requisite gravitas and there are fun roles for Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, and a truly film-stealing Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent, constantly swinging between being Sonny’s secret friend and his most sweary enemy. It’s a murderer’s row of talent, and it’s this cast and their easy comic chemistry elevate a tale that’s not always inherently compelling on the page.
Behind the camera, Affleck is clearly enjoying allowing himself to go Full ‘80s. From the relentless soundtrack of the decade’s most easily recognisable hits to the constant insert shots of various bits and bobs of ‘80s paraphernalia, it’s nice to see Affleck’s love for his setting, even if does border on the exhausting at times. Air ends up selling the ‘80s just as much as it does Michael Jordan and his shoes, the film itself using Sonny’s trick of conflating a product with vague ideas of hope. We know Jordan will go on to be probably the greatest player in the history of the game and make Nike billions of dollars – in an anxious time, Affleck banks on not just nostalgia, but the idea that a wonderful future is set in stone. Here, he almost convinces.
Air is released in UK cinemas on 5 April.Where to watch