'Air' review: Ben Affleck’s crowd-pleaser hangs on a make-or-break play

Ben Affleck, director and co-star of

Ben Affleck's greatest strength as a filmmaker might be his eye for what an actor can do. In his feature directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, his brother Casey Affleck sharply portrays the chip-on-his-shoulder integrity of a Boston-bred detective, while Amy Ryan so authentically captured a specific brand of bad mom that she earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for it. The Town and Argo are likewise powerhouses of talent and superb casting, bringing together ensembles of stars with electric chemistry. Yet in his latest, Air, Affleck's eye has led to one of the best casting calls of the year — and potentially one of the most divisive. 

Air: Courting a Legend unfurls the behind-the-scenes story of Nike's partnership with Michael Jordan, which resulted in the Air Jordan line of basketball sneakers and apparel. Back in 1985, when the iconic high tops launched, Jordan was a rookie who hadn't even stepped onto the Chicago Bulls court. But make no mistake: This is not a film about Michael Jordan. It is a film about the brand and the men (and mom) behind it. 

What is Air about? 

Matt Damon and Viola Davis in
Credit: Amazon Studios

According to Alex Convery's screenplay, the Nike of 1985 was a deeply uncool brand known for jogging shoes. Basketball pros and hip-hop stars were drawn to competitors Converse and Adidas. After the NBA draft, a bidding war hits to tie could-be stars to shoe lines, and Nike has less cash and less cache to offer. The safe play might be to pick three to four lower-draft picks, but the hero of this story is a gambler. 

After a side quest to Las Vegas, Nike basketball expert Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) returns to the Nike offices in Beaverton, Oregon, to spin the wheel on one big bet: putting all their money on Michael Jordan.

It's an idea that raises eyebrows from his closest colleague, Howard White (Chris Tucker), smirking marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and eccentric CEO Phil Knight (Affleck). But convincing the Nike bigwigs is only half the battle. Sonny will have to score the favor of the basketball pro's mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), before he can even try to pitch to win over the one and only Michael Jordan. 

Ben Affleck has built a spectacularly entertaining ensemble. 

Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, and Matthew Maher in
Credit: Amazon Studios

This is one of those casts where just about every speaking role makes you perk up in giddy recognition. Beyond star power, Affleck smartly positions his players for success. Tucker and Bateman are in their comfort zones. The former plays a smooth-talking charmer with a mischievous glisten in his eye while the latter takes on an acerbic cynic whose crooked smile could cut glass. 

Likewise, Damon is well-centered as the everyman with an extraordinary sense of vision. Bedecked in rumpled polo shirts and a painfully unhip Members Only jacket, the pot-bellied Sonny has no illusions that he's as flashy or impressive as his boss. Knight, on the other hand, has a meticulously lacquered sports car, a fondness for Buddhist aphorisms, and a penchant for pairing a business suit with precisely pedicured bare feet. Naturally, Affleck took that role. This gives the Good Will Hunting pair plenty of room to face off with familiarity and heat. Affleck may be most entertaining when playing a self-important clown (see also: The Last Duel), but he knows Damon is at his best as the resilient idealist. So, every time someone scorns Sonny or even curses a blue streak at him, Air offers joy in its hero's inevitable rebound. 

Elsewhere, Our Flag Means Death's Matthew Maher brings humor and heart to a supporting role as a shoe designer whose devotion to his craft is as nerdy as it is winsome. Naturally, Viola Davis is stunning as Deloris Jordan. It's not that she snatches focus away from Damon the moment she strolls onscreen so much as her presence compels it. It's like when your mom patiently extends a hand toward you, and you hand her whatever she wants because she deserves it. In their scenes together, she owns this film, exuding the spiritual strength and don't-mess-around vibe that's become her brand. So, whether Deloris is talking legacy or price points, her every word carries weight. And yet…

Chris Messina is Air's unapologetic scene-stealer. 

Chris Messina yells into a phone in
Credit: Amazon Studios

Davis deserved an Oscar nomination last year for her stirring, groundbreaking work in The Woman King. But if I could only bet on one performance from Air making it to Oscar night, I'd lay my chips down on Chris Messina, who acts like he's been cast in a '70s Scorsese movie. It's goddamn glorious. 

Messina, who previously appeared as a snarky CIA agent in Affleck's Argo, co-stars here as Michael Jordan's ball-busting agent, David Falk. And even though most of his scenes feature him acting into a phone, Messina doesn't phone it in. He unleashes a flood of furious invectives at Sonny, recalling the passionate proclamations of Pacino in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon or Pesci in Goodfellas, with an exhilarating mix of intensity and hilarity.

But Falk is no anti-hero. He's an unquestionable bastard, whether he's popping off about negotiations, ambition, or herpes simplex 2. It's an absolute thrill to watch him go off as the volcanic foil to Sonny's sunny optimism. And amid all the cursing and threats, Messina boldly delivers one of the funniest performances we're likely to see this year. 

Michael Jordan is a hole in Air. 

Viola Davis and Julius Tennon in
Credit: Amazon Studios

While much of Affleck's casting choices in Air err on the side of superb, one pivotal choice is repeatedly jarring: He doesn't cast Michael Jordan. 

Okay, technically Damian Delano Young is credited as Michael Jordan in Air. But storied cinematographer Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, JFK, Natural Born Killers) dedicatedly shoots around him as if he were a body double. At no point is the actor's face shown. In some scenes, this plays well enough, such as when the focus is on Davis's Deloris intently taking in the sales pitches from grinning white executives. But when it comes to the climax, where Sonny and his team finally get to meet Michael, this device drops the ball. 

A running joke is that Jordan has no interest in Nike, so his refusal to face the execs as they introduce themselves could speak to his character. However, it's goofy to watch the young man crane his head away as if he'd rather stare at a wall rather than say hello. Plus, it's also pretty rude, which goes against everything Deloris has said about her son — and you wouldn't call Michael Jordan's mom a liar, would you? This disconnect grows uncomfortable when Sonny delivers a passionate speech and Affleck doesn't offer the audience a single reaction shot from the Jordan behind Air Jordan. Instead, Affleck and editor William Goldenberg (Live By Night, Argo) deliver a dizzying montage of the real Michael Jordan's accomplishments using archival footage, newspaper headlines, old photographs, and cover pages of gossip magazines. The real face of Michael Jordan, assembled from a bevy of different contexts from the future, is presented instead of showing Young's reaction to the movie's big make-or-break moment.

At a special screening of Air, Affleck said Jordan is "too famous" to be played by anyone else. "That the one sure way to ruin the movie and have the audience understand that the whole thing is a fraud is to point the camera at anybody that's not Michael Jordan and say, 'Hey, that's Michael Jordan!'" IndieWire reports. "The only person who could play Michael Jordan, as I've said to him, is too old now to play Michael Jordan."

Frankly, I'm torn on this point. On one hand, Affleck is spectacular at pairing talent to roles, and if he thinks no one could capture a young Michael Jordan, maybe he's onto something. But then I'm troubled by what this movie means if Michael Jordan is treated as a myth rather than a man. In this film, he is made up of whispers and one single (but repeated) video of the game that made him a draft pick. The subject of the film is about how a bunch of visionary men, most of whom are white, made this young Black athlete a brand. Deloris's scenes humanize Jordan, offering the context of his family and their history. Plus, Davis brings a powerful presence and gives a face to this story. But is it enough to make up for cutting Jordan himself? I'm not so sure.

Unquestionably, there's a lot to thrill over in Air. Though this is basically a movie about business meetings, Convery's script brings plenty of energy through spirited dialogue and sharply realized characters who collide with passion and flair. Affleck's ensemble cast crackles, reveling in their fortes and inviting us along for the joy ride. Adding to its crowd-pleasing appeal is a sincere American dream narrative, celebrating how hard workers and risk-takers might win even in the face of tireless opposition. Yet, for my money, the final act fumbles when it comes to Jordan's depiction.

To celebrate the craft of the shoe, the savviness of the marketing campaign, the vision of Nike, the devotion of a mother, and the skill of an athlete, but to not to tie that all together with a performance of Jordan, even a brief one, is to treat him not as a man but an unknowable legend. This undercuts the inspirational aspect of Air, but perhaps more pressing, it cheats us of the film's slam dunk moment. This isn't a story about Michael Jordan, but it's missing something without him as a character. Air is Air Jordan without the Jordan.

Air opens only in theaters April 5.