Based on a true story, “Air” stars Matt Damon (“The Last Duel,” 2021) as sports marketing exec Sonny Vaccaro and chronicles his journey to bag basketball player Michael Jordan as the face of Nike. Knowing the kind of precedent this deal set across the sports marketing landscape, it’s almost poetic that actor-filmmaker Ben Affleck (“Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” 2021)—for whom this is his fifth feature-length film as a director—would choose this as the first feature film to kickstart Artists Equity, his newly formed production house in partnership with Damon.
Artists Equity, according to Affleck, goes by a very simple tenet. “There are people,” the actor-director said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “who just have their hand on the wheel in ways people don’t understand.” The ‘people’ in question? The idea is to give everyone working on its films—editors, cinematographers, production designers, first assistant directors, et al.—an ownership stake.
For Nike, the Hail Mary that saved the company from bankruptcy also became a significant turning point for athlete endorsements. Jordan signed a deal with the company that would give him 5% of the net wholesale price of every pair of Air Jordans sold. This would set a precedent for future athletes to ask for what was rightfully owed to them in an endorsement deal that was, before this, set only to make the brands richer.
The cliff notes of the Air Jordan deal might as well form the building blocks for The Classic Underdog MovieTM, and with “Air,” Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery manage to achieve just that. Using the core tenet of films of the like—having likable primary characters that viewers can relate to, root, and cheer for—Convery balances their trademarks with a blend of whip-smart Sorkin-esque dialogue and nuanced character writing, with a healthy dose of rip-roaring physical and verbal comedy that almost always guarantees to get a laugh out of you.
Affleck works in sync with the screenwriter here, bringing an added oomph to the final execution. With the help of Robert Richardson’s (“Adrift,” 2018) dynamic cinematography and the punchy creative decisions of film editor William Goldenberg (“News of the World,” 2020), the actor-director manages to make a visually stylish film that captivates and immerses you fully and consistently.
Keeping immersion in mind, award-winning music supervisor Andrea von Foerster (“M3GAN,” 2023) brings in the best soundscapes from Dire Straits and Tangerine Dream to chart-toppers like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and makes “Air” feel like more of its time, enhancing and uplifting its overall production design in the process.
For a created world to feel authentic and lived in, it needs relatable characters to live in it. Fortunately, “Air” boasts a stellar ensemble cast, firing from all cylinders without dropping a beat. Viola Davis (“The Woman King,” 2022), Ben Affleck, Damon, and Chris Messina (“Birds of Prey,” 2020) stand out here. Davis is pitch-perfect as the matriarch of the Jordan household. Every word she utters on screen has a certain weight to it, bringing out her steely exterior in a way only she could. Messina’s physical comedy is only complemented by the swagger in his body language that brings out the scrappy celebrity agent he plays.
Damon and Affleck are brilliant. Affleck constructs the image of a scruffy himbo CEO-wannabe and plays to the gallery. It looks like the most fun he’s had in years playing a role. Damon’s brilliant as the film’s central protagonist, bringing out a dynamic character that goes through waves of contemplation, vulnerability, and mischief like you’d expect from a normal human being. Jason Bateman (“Game Night,” 2018), Chris Tucker (“Silver Linings Playbook,” 2012), and Marlon Wayans (“Respect,” 2021) lend fantastic support.
As it nears its end, “Air”—the biographical drama that it is—utilizes the all-too-familiar narrative device of epilogue-via-text, except with a bit of a twist: it does this while simultaneously closing out any open plot threads, seamlessly connecting to them and making it feel like less of a “history lesson” and more like a well-timed punchline of sorts in the best way possible. That alone should let you know that Affleck intended for “Air” to feel and behave like a real movie instead of a docudrama. Clocking at almost two hours, the film balances its deliciously upbeat visual style with relatable characters and an emotional core that holds your attention till the end of the movie. It’s easily among my favorites this year and a must-watch.