Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time. But Jordan’s impact extends well beyond the basketball court. During his playing career and beyond, Jordan transcended the sport of basketball, becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Perhaps the biggest impact he made off the court was with his iconic sneakers, the Air Jordans.
The thing about Air Jordans is that while they started as another Nike shoe line, they became so popular that Nike created a subsidiary company completely dedicated to the Jordan brand. According to some reports, Nike controls approximately 30% of the athletic footwear market, and Jordan Brand, owned by Nike, comes in second at 15%. That market dominance is unprecedented for any singular athlete; but then again, Michael Jordan is hardly a typical athlete.
In Prime Video’s new film Air, directed by Ben Affleck, the story behind Nike’s successful signing of Michael Jordan before he turned pro is told in an almost mythological way. This isn’t a documentary film. Instead, it’s an entertaining retrospective into the summer of 1984 which captures the critical elements that forever changed Nike and sneaker culture.
Air premieres in theaters April 5th!
From award-winning director Ben Affleck, AIR reveals the unbelievable game-changing partnership between a then-rookie Michael Jordan and Nike’s fledgling basketball division which revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture with the Air Jordan brand. This moving story follows the career-defining gamble of an unconventional team with everything on the line, the uncompromising vision of a mother who knows the worth of her son’s immense talent, and the basketball phenom who would become the greatest of all time.
Matt Damon plays maverick Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro and Affleck plays Nike co-founder Phil Knight with Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, Julius Tennon as James Jordan, Chris Tucker as Howard White, Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser, Chris Messina as David Falk, Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, and Matthew Maher as Peter Moore – among others.
It’s almost absurd that it’s taken nearly 40 years for a film like Air to delve into the history of possibly the greatest athletic sponsorship deal in history. Michael Jordan and Nike forever changed the landscape of athletic footwear, the NBA, celebrity endorsements and even player empowerment. Today, world famous athletes like Lebron James owe much of their off-court success to the trail that Jordan blazed, and yet haven’t been able to change the game the way he did.
Interestingly, Air is about all of the major individuals around Jordan at that time, including Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike co-founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina), and Jordan’s mother Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis). Jordan himself isn’t actually a character in the film, and is instead more of a mythical unicorn that influences everyone involved by his mere existence.
Vaccaro is the main character in the story, who provides the audience perspective for the film as a relatively unknown Nike executive with a unique vision. Vaccaro is a basketball legend in his own right, having created the ABCD basketball camp, which brought together the top high school players in the country and revolutionized high school recruiting . He’s credited for much of what is considered AAU hoops culture among high school players in the U.S. today, and he played a major role in the landmark case, O’Bannon vs. NCAA, which helped pave the way for college athletes to get paid for the use of their name and likeness.
Matt Damon plays Vaccaro with his trademark earnestness and zeal. He’s the guy with a vision that nobody else can see and runs around begging for someone to believe in him. Sometimes that’s Phil Knight, sometimes that’s Nike marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and sometimes that’s Jordan’s own parents. As is typical with these types of stories about a groundbreaking deal that changed history, Vaccaro runs into countless hurdles and skeptics. There are numerous points when his dream is seemingly crushed, which reflects the razor thin line between life-changing success and utter failure.
Nike here is presented as a spunky underdog. It’s hard to believe considering the massive juggernaut we know today, but in 1984, according to the film, Nike was a distant third in basketball footwear. In the film, Phil Knight is Nike personified – an up-and-coming executive who is barely keeping the ship together against his more successful competitors, Converse and Adidas. Juggling the dual roles of director and co-star, Ben Affleck is charismatic and highly entertaining as Knight (ironically, the footwear executive is often shown barefoot, which the actual Knight was known to do). He gives Knight a rebelliousness and bravado that’s easy to cheer for, even as he drives a flashy Porsche with a vanity plate.
To nobody’s surprise, Damon and Affleck have impeccable chemistry, and one only wishes that the story focused more on the friendship between their two characters, so that the duo could share more screen time together. Instead, Knight is more of a mentor to Vaccaro, and is seen relatively sparingly as the film progresses. If anything, it’s Jason Bateman’s Rob Strasser who is more on the front lines of developing the Jordan shoe line and pitch.
Fortunately, Bateman, who consistently delivers relatable and likeable performances in all of his roles, also has excellent chemistry with Damon. One of the highlights of the film is seeing Vaccaro and Strasser spend all weekend finalizing the pitch that would change their lives forever. Indeed, the core of the film’s success lies in its stellar cast, which also includes Chris Tucker as another Nike executive, Howard White, and Marlon Wayans as basketball coach George Raveling. If nothing else, Air is worth watching to see all of these wonderful talents together.
Speaking of wonderful talents, Viola Davis is exceptional as Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan. With the decision to remove Michael Jordan as an active character in the story, Deloris plays a critical role as Michael’s proxy. She is the primary decision-maker for the young Jordan and if Vaccaro and Nike must convince anyone, it’s Deloris. Davis as Deloris is as perfect as any casting can be, as she plays the role with a quiet confidence and maternal warmth. The film makes it clear that Deloris was a crucial part of her son’s ultimate decision to join Nike, and it’s great to see a woman hold so much power in a film dominated by male figures.
As wonderful as Viola Davis is as Deloris Jordan, and as much as the film emphasizes the weight she carries in Michael Jordan’s life, it’s too often told to the audience instead of shown. We see other characters talk about how important Deloris is when it would have been far more impactful to see her in action. It’s almost a shame to have a talent of Davis’ level and not give her more to do.
Julius Tennon, who plays Michael’s father James Jordan, is given even less to do that Davis. Tennon’s James is an affable and supportive father, but is only in a few memorable scenes. Considering how close Michael reportedly was to his father, whose tragic death prompted Michael to retire from the NBA, it would have been a very welcome addition to the film to see more of the Jordan family unit.
Ultimately, the film’s biggest weaknesses boil down to the creative decision to remove Michael from the story and the lack of true tension due to its inevitable result. Not having one of the most famous athletes in a story about his iconic brand is an understandable decision but a disappointing one. Undoubtedly, if Michael was a larger part of the story, his presence would have threatened to take the spotlight from everyone else involved. However, telling the story around him proved to be an equally challenging task, and one that the script did not do a strong enough job compensating for.
In the end, everyone knows that Jordan signed with Nike and everyone involved became absurdly rich and successful. And while there are countless films where the outcoming is not in doubt, there simply isn’t enough drama in this one. The biggest hurdle that Vaccaro faces is getting those around him to believe in him, and while he is rebuffed a few times, the audience doesn’t share in his struggle. We never feel his fear or despair. Instead it feels like Damon himself couldn’t shake the feeling that his character’s success was inevitable.
While the story primarily focuses on Vaccaro and his relationships with Knight and Strasser, the film does make a concerted effort to ensure that Deloris Jordan is a central figure in the story. In addition to the Jordans, Howard White and George Raveling play smaller but important roles. Still, all of them could have been given more to do, and an ensemble approach to the story would have elevated the entire film. There’s a version of this story where we see the Jordan family wrestle with this monumental decision outlined in more detail and where their journey is a more central focus, and that version would have been exceptional.
THE RATING – 3.5/5
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.