movie review

To Fly Is Human. To Air, Divine.

Ben Affleck’s Air might as well be a faith-based film about Nike’s signing of Michael Jordan. Photo: Ana Carballosa/Prime

This review was originally published in April. We are recirculating it now that Air is available to stream on Prime Video.

We never see the face of the actor playing Michael Jordan in Air. A newcomer named Damian Delano Young, he hovers on the edges of a handful of shots and only utters a couple of brief lines. There is a practical reason for this. At several dramatic points, the film uses video footage of Jordan — the real Jordan — on the basketball court and off, and re-creating those iconic moments with an actor (or, even worse, digitally adding an actor’s face to the archival Jordan’s body) would surely ring false to generations of viewers who grew up watching the superstar and who consider him (correctly) to be the greatest player ever to walk the earth.

But there’s a spiritual reason for it, too, and Air, Ben Affleck’s enormously entertaining corporate drama about Nike’s efforts to sign Jordan, who at the time was just a promising rookie and had not yet played a single NBA game, playfully taps into this idea. When Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the executive in charge of the shoe company’s basketball outreach, first visits the Jordan family at their home in North Carolina, he talks first to Deloris (Viola Davis), Michael’s mom and the clear decision-maker in the family. “Is he … here?” Sonny asks Deloris in hushed tones. “He is, but you don’t need to see him yet,” she replies, with a mysterious smile. “It’s not time for that.” Are they talking about Michael Jordan, or a religious figure?

Why not both? In Air, the distinction eventually becomes meaningless, and Alex Convery’s script clearly nods to the divine overtones. “I found him,” Sonny tells Nike marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), after realizing that the company must pursue Jordan for their sneaker endorsement. “Who’s that, Jesus?” is Strasser’s casual response. At the picture’s emotional climax, as he delivers what will surely go down in history as one of the great sports-movie speeches, Sonny makes the point to Michael himself that the player practically exists outside of space and time. “Everyone at this table will be forgotten,” he says, noting all the executives gathered around them. “Except for you.”

Air might seem at first like a ridiculous idea for a movie, but it is in fact an ingenious one. The creation of the Air Jordan sneaker did change pop culture forever. Jordan’s unprecedented profit-sharing deal with Nike would give athletes equity in the products they were being used to sell. “People like your son, people who work for a living, they don’t let us own anything,” Sonny tells Deloris when the idea is first presented, framing it as a labor-rights issue. But it is also about the explosive, singular talent of one particular individual. “It won’t be the NBA marketing my son,” Deloris predicts. “I assure you it will be the other way around.”

The movie may be about timelessness, but it feels very much of its time. Affleck cuts repeatedly to images associated with the 1980s — Rubik’s Cubes, Jane Fonda workout videos, Mr. T, Beverly Hills Cop, break dancing, etc. He also bathes his film in pop music of the era, often with on-the-nose cues (“All I Need Is a Miracle,” “Money for Nothing,” “Time After Time,” and, of course, “Born in the USA” all make pointed appearances), while using the dreamy, New Age strains of Tangerine Dream (lifted from movies such as Risky Business, Firestarter, and Three O’Clock High) at other moments like an original score.

The film thus situates the Air Jordan as a product of the runaway consumerism of the 1980s, but it also hints at a boundless, complex new world coming into view. Because this moment did represent a quantum jump from mere commodification. By marrying this particular athlete’s persona with a shoe that bore his name, Nike executives ensured that spiritual longing and hypercelebrity would be forever entwined and could be sold as an object. Rock stars like Elvis and the Beatles might have formed the initial bond decades earlier, but now the iconography of fame and corporate branding became one. Future transactions would no longer be just about someone’s talent but also about the intangible grace of their identity.

Air is itself an embodiment of this principle. “We need you in these shoes not so that you have meaning in your life, but so that we will have meaning in our lives,” Sonny tells Michael. It’s a sly reflection of the way the film has presented its cast of characters. When he’s not working a basketball court, Sonny is a quiet, solitary man who spends almost all his free time gambling in Vegas. “A fat, middle-aged guy that doesn’t want to exercise” is how Howard White (Chris Tucker), his fellow executive sad sack, describes him. Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), who designs the Air Jordan shoe with the wild-eyed fervor of a religious zealot, is in the midst of a midlife crisis; when we first see him, he’s awkwardly skateboarding in the parking lot. Strasser is a divorced dad who gets to see his daughter for a couple of hours every Sunday, bringing her a new sneaker each time to ingratiate himself. “The shoes make me mean something to her,” he confides to Sonny. Nike CEO Phil Knight, played by Affleck himself, spouts Buddhist aphorisms, drives a fancy sports car, and jogs relentlessly, but he too seems touched by the ghosts of midlife melancholy. Jordan’s bloviating, foul-mouthed agent, David Falk, played by a deliciously oily Chris Messina, might pretend to be a master of the universe, but he is perhaps the loneliest figure of them all. He even admits to not having any friends.

In truth, these men had enviable, high-ranking positions at major American companies. Deep down, however, they probably saw themselves as working stiffs just like everyone else, and the air of anonymous, workaday pathos Affleck conjures around them feels emotionally authentic. Like many corporate types, they are well-paid cogs. Their interaction with Michael Jordan brings them in touch with transcendence. Maybe that’s another reason why Air doesn’t let us see the pretend Michael Jordan’s face. It needs the benediction offered by those pixelated, decades-old images of the real thing, whose presence still fills emotional voids and captures imaginations.

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To Fly Is Human. To Air, Divine.