Damon and Affleck team up for 'Air,' the story of Nike’s pursuit of Michael Jordan

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

“Air” is a good time, as well as a triumph of sports marketing in every conceivable way. It’s a docudrama — really more of a docucomedy-drama, with workplace banter and zingers for fuel — about how Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, convinced his boss Phil Knight, played by co-star and director Ben Affleck, to cough up the funds to make the pitch to get the basketball star for the ages to sell their shoes. It’s a movie about winners, winning and millions.

We do not see Michael Jordan in “Air,” aside from a few shots of an essentially nonverbal actor’s back, or the back of his head. He’s the guy in the room everyone’s talking about, a wondrous, never-fully-revealed figure. Like Jesus Christ in “Ben-Hur.”

Matt Damon stars in "Air." The movie opens Wednesday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

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“Air” is also about spending money to make money, which would make it a period piece in much of corporate America today even if it weren’t, in fact, set 39 years ago. In sports movie terms “Air” is the opposite of director Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball.” That film, a terrific one, told of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane scraped together a Basic Economy roster of promising nobodies through the use of sabermetric analysis. In “Air,” no metrics are allowed. This is a story of middle- and upper-management gut feelings.

Screenwriter Alex Convery covers three chaotic months in 1984. Nike has recently gone public. The stockholders are restless. In the wake of the latest NBA draft, Vaccaro hunts for affordable rookies to endorse the company’s merchandise, which is strong on running equipment but perilously weak on basketball.

Vaccaro has a lean $250,000 to divide among several prospects. But there’s a recent Chicago Bulls draftee from the University of North Carolina who has something special. Why not put the quarter-million on him alone? Vaccaro needs a career-saver. Nike’s basketball division hangs in the balance. Maybe this Jordan kid is it.

Matt Damon and Viola Davis star in "Air." The movie opens Wednesday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The movie, nice and pace-y, divvies its narrative among Vaccaro’s colleagues, many skeptical about the endorsement pitch’s chances. Jason Bateman portrays marketing director Rob Strasser, trying to repair his post-divorce relationship with his daughter. Chris Tucker is fellow exec Howard White, who was not in the early drafts of “Air.” (The actor and comedian says he wrote the White scenes, at the behest of Jordan and Affleck.) In the later scenes depicting the conception and design of what became the Air Jordan prototype, Matthew Maher makes for a beautiful deadpan addition to a strong ensemble as designer Peter Moore, basically the film’s Q, in James Bond parlance.

Cleverly and naturally, “Air” keeps its key characters rolling in and out of the storyline. Viola Davis and her real-life husband, Julius Tennon, take the roles of Deloris and James R. Jordan Sr. Early on, dodging the proper channels, Vaccaro travels from Nike’s Oregon headquarters to North Carolina to meet, unannounced, with the Jordans about his endorsement pitch. Davis is terrific, as always, but she’s terrific here as much for what’s withheld, or suggested, rather than stressed or underlined. She has all the cards. And whether it happened this way or not, when Deloris gets down to her specific and unprecedented financial terms, Davis works wonders with a look, and the slightest shifts in vocal intonations on lines such as “You eat, we eat.”

The ‘80s-ness of “Air” goes a little hog-wild, notably with wall-to-wall pop tunes of the era (everything from Dire Straits to the Violent Femmes, the latter always, always welcome). Affleck knows that simply showing up for his scenes as CEO Knight, wearing those ridiculous shades, etc., is half the performance battle. Neither Affleck nor, especially, Damon, visually suggest much of the real-life figures they play; in an HBO project that never came to fruition, Vaccaro was to be played by James Gandolfini, a lot closer to the real Sonny than Damon could ever manage. Is this important? Well, one aspect is, I’d argue. Damon chooses to approach Vaccaro, as written here, as a very earnest and low-key kind of hustler, playing against the rhythm of the movie as a whole. And yet Damon’s enjoyable; he knows how to anchor a movie full of more attention-getting side players.

Jason Bateman stars in "Air." The movie opens Wednesday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

“Air” does have a full share of hogwash moments, including Vaccaro’s buzzer-beater entreaty in the climactic pitch meeting to seal the deal with the Jordan family. Why do I resist this sort of thing? Am I just un-American or something? I can only say I tend to resist such things right through and including the moment I don’t. Like Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo,” “Air” has a true knack for shamelessly effective audience manipulation en route to a happy ending.

There’s a hidden layer of meaning underneath “Air,” if you want to look for it. The movie is a project made under the new Artists Equity production banner, which Affleck and Damon launched in order to set up new and artist-friendlier revenue-sharing models in this gushy, uncertain age of streaming content. (“Air” will stream on Amazon later this year; meantime it’s opening in theaters.) The key, repeated line in writer Alex Convery’s efficient screenplay is Marketing Blather 101, and it works like a charm: “A shoe is always just a shoe, until somebody steps into it.”The “Air” line I found even more inspiring? An even simpler one: “We need to increase spending.”

'AIR'3 stars (out of 4)Rated: R (for language throughout)Running time: 1:52