The Pitch: The phrase “based on a true story” is taking American film down some curious rabbit holes in 2023, with movies about the rights to the video game TETRIS and the founding of Blackberry attracting A-list talent. But in Air, the story of a shoe has elicited one of the year’s most all-star casts, with an Oscar-winning director skillfully maneuvering around the one star who doesn’t appear on screen: Michael Jordan.
It’s 1984, and Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) has a tough job as Nike’s in-house basketball scout, the man who’s supposed to get three NBA players to serve as brand ambassadors, and wear Nike shoes on the court. Unfortunately, Nike is far from the juggernaut that it is today, with Adidas and Converse being the culturally cooler options for the sport’s superstars at that time.
So Sonny, after watching tape of a young rookie from North Carolina, comes up with a bold plan: Rather than make a deal with three different players, commit all of Nike’s resources to creating a new shoe specifically for Michael Jordan — a contract which will change the nature of sports marketing forever.
All Hail His Air-Ness: To watch Ben Affleck’s Air is to discover how deep society’s worship of Michael Jordan goes. The Oscar-winner’s fifth film as director is first and foremost meant as a tribute to the famed Chicago Bulls star, taking it as fact that you, the viewer, think that he’s one of the greatest athletes of all time. Really, it goes beyond that: You believe that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest humans of all time.
It’s that level of hero worship that leads Affleck to make the smart choice in never putting Jordan fully on screen, with a body double serving as a faceless stand-in for the role. This instead lets the spotlight focus on Viola Davis as Deloris, Jordan’s mother — casting Davis in the role, according to Affleck, was a condition of Jordan giving the film his blessing, and since we’re in the zone already, it’s an easy layup of a roll for the actress, though she finds no shortage of nuance in Deloris’s negotiations with Nike.
Got to Move These Color TVs: Early reviews of Air compared the film to Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, but while the business of sports is central to that film, Jerry Maguire is much more of a character study, with a fair amount to say about the way in which the industry uses and abuses athletes. Meanwhile, the closest Air gets to serious character development is the film’s fixation on Sonny being out-of-shape (Damon wears a fat suit for the role). It’s a detail that has a touch of irony given his profession, but just devolves into fat-shaming Matt Damon for looking like your uncle from Chicago.