Updated: March 23, 2023, at 5:20 p.m.
Iconic sports films are often only barely about the sports they burrow into.
Rocky yells out the name of his lover at the end of the climactic fight instead of worrying about the results, and the business deals of “Moneyball” are more thrilling than the action on the actual baseball diamond. “Air,” a Ben Affleck-directed film chronicling basketball icon Michael Jordan’s decision to sign a shoe deal with Nike at the start of his NBA career, is no different.
The exciting yet occasionally ill-paced film is only tangentially about basketball. A smattering of clips showing Michael Jordan sink supernatural layups litter the movie – that much was inevitable. But the meat of the plot surrounds the fight to get His Airness to join the then-less-relevant Nike company and the making of a modern-day myth.
Affleck plays Nike founder Phil Knight in the star-studded film that also features Matt Damon as Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother and Deloris and Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman as other members of the Nike top brass.
The movie centers around Sonny’s fight to let his Nike superiors chase a deal with Jordan, whom Sonny saw as an inevitable icon not just for basketball but for the world. The film tells an underdog story – Nike wasn’t always the basketball powerhouse it is now. The movie shows how the company trailed Converse and Adidas in basketball shoe sales in the early ’80s, and the firm was desperate for stars to help it break out of the rut.
The Chicago Bulls selected Jordan third in the 1984 NBA draft, and Adidas was the favorite to sign the star. In the film, Nike CEO Phil Knight is initially reluctant to pursue Jordan as a brand ambassador and opts to sponsor three lesser-known players instead, but Sonny – embracing the rule-breaking and ambitious spirit from the early days of Nike – refuses to take no for an answer.
The movie avoids showing Jordan on screen – no actor could have adequately portrayed the cold-blooded competitor. The absence of Mr. Clutch can feel awkward at times, but Davis’ motherly strength as Deloris made up for the absence of the superstar. Davis is, as always, brilliantly compelling and forceful as a mother who understands her son can exceed even the wildest expectations.
Alex Convery wrote the screenplay in 2021 and the script appeared on that year’s Black List, an annual survey listing some of the best unproduced screenplays, typically written by relatively unknown storytellers. Michael Jordan himself wasn’t involved in the production of the film, but he did give his blessing to Affleck and even suggested that Davis play his mother.
The 1980s-based film drips with nostalgia – the movie was inundated with images of an Atari or a “Where’s the Beef” clip or Walter Mondale or a Los Angeles Olympics clip. But MJ’s Nike deal wasn’t just vital for creating an ‘80s and ‘90s legend – the contract’s revenue cut for Jordan helped build a still ongoing movement by athletes to own and profit from their name and image.
A critical phone call between Sonny and Deloris where she illustrates the importance of athletes owning a share of their likeness takes the movie from a strong biopic to an excellent story of personal labor and value. Deloris knew her son would reach the stars and set up a contract to maximize the potential of his greatness.
It’s no coincidence that Sonny, who organized the Jordan contract, also helped organize the lawsuit that guaranteed student-athletes to earn compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness.
The movie is a hilarious and exciting romp – the last 20 minutes feel similar to the thrill of a close Game 7. Affleck’s movie pays great homage to underdogs everywhere, whether they be basketball stars from North Carolina or shoemakers in Beaverton, Oregon.
“Air” releases in theaters next Wednesday, April 5.
This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that “Air” releases next Friday. The film releases Wednesday, April 5. We regret this error.
This article appeared in the March 23, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.