Air (2023) Review: Most 80s, 90s, and 00s kids will have some kind of affinity for Michael Jordan. Whether it’s because they’ve seen him dominate the NBA with the Chicago Bulls or save Earth from the threat of alien colonization with the Tune Squad, most of us will share the experience that, at one point or another, we wanted to be like Mike.
Even today, kids that are being born twenty years after the last time he ever pulled a jersey on are still wearing his shoes. Ben Affleck’s Air isn’t the first unconventional biopic that’s focused on Jordan’s life, Space Jam was a highly fictionalized version of his return to basketball, but it is the first that shines a significant spotlight on the people that were bold enough to contribute to the story that we all know.
It starts with a familiar nostalgic montage that casts our minds back to the first few minutes of Space Jam, actually. But this time, instead of being footage of Jordan, it’s various elements of 1984 American pop culture. Ronald Reagan, Eddie Murphy, Hulk Hogan. This is a story that starts not only before Jordan was a household name but before even Nike was.
Some context is necessary going into the film. There are story beats that are easily missed without a level of awareness of how Nike markets itself nowadays. There are references to how basketball shoes aren’t casual shoes, something which is almost absurd to think now that we all wear them without even realizing it.
Moreover, there are some significant conversations about how Arthur Ashe was marketing his tennis racket at the time – as an accessory that’s available to anyone rather than just a tool for sport. The whole idea that sports equipment should be packaged as an identity rather than a means to an end is presented in quite a subtle way. Still, it really does give some insight into why Nike’s commercials have essentially become celebrated short films in their own rights.
Much of the narrative is telling the story of just how difficult it was for Nike even to get a meeting with Jordan. Converse was the brand that the big names in basketball gravitated toward, and the young kids coming through the draft were more interested in Adidas because of their affiliation with hip-hop culture. Ironically, some of the tactics that Nike had to use to disrupt the basketball market are similar to the ones used by their competitors now.
There’s a famous story about how Stephen Curry turned Nike down after an underwhelming meeting where he was made to feel like just another name on a long list, and that’s what Under Armour was able to capitalize on in gaining his signature. In Air, it’s Converse and Adidas who are complacent, with Nike able to take advantage of their smaller stature.
Whether it’s on purpose or not, it makes a point that’s still true today that these brands just aren’t worth much without the people behind them pushing innovation. Ultimately, that’s where Air’s heart is.
There’s a very deliberate choice not to show Michael Jordan’s face throughout. In fact, he only says two words in the whole film. Given his celebrity status, and the fact that this is a picture about a legacy that he is central to, it’s worth noting that his character isn’t given much screen time. But that’s exactly what makes Air so interesting and meaningful.
Michael Jordan is someone we don’t need any introduction to, but that’s partly because of people like James and Deloris Jordan, his parents, who made sure that their son got the best deal possible. Or Sonny Vaccaro, who believed in a young basketball player so much that he was prepared to risk his entire career and the stability of his industry to ensure that his company’s basketball division did the right thing.
Or even Phil Knight, who was willing to go along with something that just wasn’t important at a corporate level for the sake of doing something new and exciting. Without Air, we probably wouldn’t know the names of Howard White and Peter Moore either. But without them, there would be no Jordan brand, and there would have never even been a shoe that started it all off.
In a poignant moment during a meeting between Nike execs and the Jordan family, Sonny (Matt Damon) makes a speech about how Michael’s legacy will live on through his sporting achievements, but no one else in that room will have one, but now they do.
Strangely enough, it has something in common with your typical World War II film. We go into it knowing the end because Jordan is such a huge brand now, we all know that he eventually signed with Nike. Subsequently, as a result, it went on to become one of the biggest sports brands in the world. That only makes the journey all the more important, and Air handles that quite well. Amazingly, it manages to create a sense of sympathy for a multi-billion dollar company.
Of course, there are two sides to that. The way that it pulls that off is by poking fun at corporate culture. Nike’s CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), is portrayed as a harmless egotist who often bumbles into saying the wrong thing, or at least something that’s charming because it’s so silly.
It’s absolutely fitting that it should be this kind of thing that the punchlines of the jokes revolve around. However, there is a feeling that more could have been said about Nike’s less charming business practices. There’s one conversation about how Nike would like to be seen as an all-American brand while it outsources the manufacturing of its products to countries where they can be made for cheaper, but that’s about it.
Another aspect that doesn’t quite sit right is the character of Sonny Vaccaro. Out of anyone in the film, it’s arguably him, along with Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), who deserves the most credit. Between them, they effectively changed the power balance between athletes and corporations in a way that means kids who come from nothing are now able to negotiate fairer terms for the use of their names and likeness.
Really, they’ve facilitated the American dream, the idea that you can work your way to the top on a scale that not many others can lay claim to. The problem is that Sonny’s defining character traits are that he’s a college basketball clairvoyant, which is fine, and that he’s a gambler. Everything comes back to that – in every conversation where he’s doing his best to convince Nike to do what he believes is the right thing. It’s happening because he’s a gambler whose appetite for risk is greater than anyone else’s.
It’s something that works well in communicating how big a deal this all was, both for him and the company. Still, it can go as far as to overshadow the good that he’s done in favor of glorifying a trait that’s almost beside the point compared to what he was able to achieve.
Ultimately though, it’s a behind-the-scenes story about a phenomenon that we all know about but likely don’t know the inner workings of. It’s as if by making Air, Ben Affleck has been able to make a film that uses the Michael Jordan brand to elevate the people in his life who were able to elevate him to the great stature that he has now. For all its flaws, it’s a heartwarming story about how one person’s story is so much bigger than just himself.