Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest athlete who ever lived, but one of the most fascinating individuals ever to breathe air. As seen in the docuseries The Last Dance, there are so many chapters of his life tailored for cinema. Of all the aspects that director Ben Affleck could’ve tackled, Jordan’s shoes might seem like an odd choice. However, there’s a lot more to Air Jordan than the Bugs Bunny commercials and the ensuing 1996 film. While Air revolves around Jordan, it’s more about the people in his orbit. Even the biggest player, Nike founder Phil Knight, will never be as recognizable as Jordan. After seeing this absorbing sports drama, though, Jordan isn’t the only name you’ll associate with the iconic silhouette.
Affleck’s directing career was on a roll until he made 2016’s Live by Night. Air is a comeback on par with Jordan’s return to the NBA in 1995. After four previous directorial outings, Affleck finally gets his bestie Matt Damon in front of the camera. Damon goes from developing a Ford that can outrace a Ferrari to playing another dreamer ready to take a chance on an underdog. He plays Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike employee who believes a then-up-and-coming Jordan is on the verge of becoming a superstar. Even Vaccaro can’t imagine just how far Jordan will go, but it’ll be far enough to raise Nike’s profile.
Air immerses us in 1984 when Caitlyn Jenner was known as Bruce Jenner, car phones weren’t obsolete, and Nike trailed miles behind two rivals: Converse and Adidas. Phil Knight, played by Affleck, seriously considers shutting down Nike’s basketball division, but Vaccaro urges him to bet everything on Jordan. That is if Jordan will even listen to their pitch. Although they’d become synonymous, Nike is barely a blip on Jordan’s radar. To score a meeting with MJ, Vaccaro has to go through his hotheaded manager David Falk, played by the underrated Chris Messina, and his mother, who the real Jordan insisted be played by Viola Davis. It’s pitch-perfect casting with Davis playing a mother whose fierce negotiating tactics are only matched by her maternal instincts. Davis’ real-life husband, Julius Tennon, also does well as Jordan’s father.
The film is an early contender for the ensemble of the year with scene-stealing supporting performances from Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker as Howard White, and Matthew Maher as Air Jordan architect Peter Moore. In a brief appearance as George Raveling, Marlon West continues to demonstrate why he should do more dramas. The strength of the cast is matched by Alex Convery’s intoxicating screenplay. Believe it or not, this is Convery’s first script, but Air plays out with the rapid-fire dialogue you’d expect from an industry veteran like Aaron Sorkin. Fittingly enough, Air is reminiscent of a film that Sorkin co-wrote, Moneyball.
Just as Moneyball wasn’t truly about baseball, Air isn’t about basketball, although the filmmakers have a clear love for the game. Air is more about the gambles that people take to change the game. In retrospect, Michael Jordan and Nike seem like such a no-brainer. At the time, though, there was a level of risk on both sides. Would Jordan live up to his immense promise? Would Nike turn a profit by betting it all on a rookie? We know the answers going in, but seeing how Air Jordan became one of the most successful brands in sports is every bit as riveting as the 1996 NBA playoffs.