Air is a dramatization of a real-life story, directed by co-star Ben Affleck. The same guy who brought us Argo. In which Affleck played a CIA officer named Tony Mendez.

The movie takes place primarily at the Nike headquarters in sweet home Oregon. For those who’ve never been to the Nike world headquarters in Beaverton (and I have), this is the company that directly forbids any competitors’ products on Nike grounds. Security will literally throw you out if you’re wearing anything but Nike clothes on campus.

Oh, and did I mention that Affleck is playing Phil Knight, the billionaire philanthropist who co-founded Nike and served as CEO through most of the company’s existence? Furthermore, did you know that Knight’s son Travis is a movie studio executive and a respectable filmmaker in his own right? Yeah, Benny boy, no pressure there.

The bottom line is that we’ve got a filmmaker with an established record playing fast and loose with history, and he’s portraying a company that has literally zero sense of humor about their corporate image. I might add that the film repeatedly shows Mount Hood sprouting from of the freaking West Hills, and Matt Damon’s commute from Beaverton to Portland crosses the goddamn St. John’s Bridge for some reason.

(Side note: Seriously, Hollywood? Portland is the city of bridges. I know the St. John’s has those beautifully photogenic spires, but we’ve got no less than eleven other major bridges and we love them all. The Burnside is right there between the iconic White Stag sign and the twin glass towers of the Convention Center. The Morrison Bridge lights up for those wonderful night shots. The Marquam has that gorgeous view of downtown. The Fremont has that huge magnificent arch. The shiny new Tillikum is right there. Just pick a different fucking bridge. Stop breaking all logic and geography just to shoehorn the St. John’s into your movie, pick a different fucking bridge!)

Bottom line: DO NOT go into this movie expecting any semblance of historical accuracy. But if the filmmakers aren’t offering a documentary, what are they offering instead? Well, let’s take a look.

We lay our scene in 1984. For a bit of context, the 1984 NBA draft is widely regarded as the greatest draft year in NBA history by everyone outside the city of Portland. Because Portland used their second overall pick (it would’ve been first, but we tied for worst in the league and lost the coin toss) to draft Sam Bowie, who went on to get repeatedly sidelined by leg injuries. Then Chicago used their third overall pick to draft Michael Jordan, who went on to become one of the greatest athletes of all time.

(Side note: Later on, in 2007, the Portland Trail Blazers had the first overall pick and chose Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. Oden also proved so injury-prone that he barely played any games while Kevin Durant went on to be one of the biggest names in the league. Thus the Portland Trail Blazers can safely lay claim to the two worst draft picks in NBA history.)

While all of this is going on, Nike is hard at work only a few miles away in Beaverton. Trouble is, Nike is getting thoroughly trounced by the more prolific Converse and the more trendy Adidas. Things are so bad at Nike, there’s talk of focusing exclusively on running shoes to the point of axing the basketball division entirely. To salvage the division, Nike needs to endorse a flashy new basketball talent who can sell some sneakers.

Enter Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike exec here played by Matt Damon. Eager for a game-changing strategy and with nothing left to lose (except of course for his own career and those of everyone in his entire department), it’s Sonny who proposes taking his entire allotted budget and putting it toward signing Michael Jordan. There are a few significant problems with this.

First of all, it bears remembering that Michael Jordan is still a rookie at this stage in his career. Aside from a couple of extraordinary games in college basketball, there’s virtually no assurance that Jordan won’t be some flash in the pan with a long and prosperous future in the pro leagues. More importantly, Jordan himself has an established professional history with Converse at the college level, and he’s a lifelong fan of Adidas. And either one of those companies could easily outbid whatever Nike could afford.

All of that said, Vaccaro does offer a few advantages unique to Nike. First off, Vaccaro comes up with the revolutionary idea of engineering a shoe specifically built around Michael Jordan. They’re giving Jordan his own bespoke line of product, something neither of Nike’s worthy competitors will offer.

Which brings me to the second main advantage: Nike doesn’t have any other major celebrity endorsements. There’s no risk that Jordan will get lost in the shuffle in favor of so many other established generational talents, and Nike will give Jordan their full time and attention like he could never get with the bigger names.

Moreover, because Nike is so desperate to stay in the basketball business and because everyone there (most especially Vaccaro) believes in Jordan so much, they’re ready to cater to Jordan’s every whim even if it means bending or outright breaking the rules. Case in point: Vaccaro takes the highly impolitic step of talking directly to Jordan’s parents (most particularly Deloris Jordan, here immortalized by Viola Davis), circumventing Jordan’s recalcitrant agent (David Falk, here played by Chris Messina) in the process. Which naturally means that the pissed-off Falk — who’s supposed to be the one handling these discussions, that’s literally his entire job — will actively steer his other clients away from Nike unless they make him look good by closing the deal and making Jordan fabulously wealthy. No pressure.

But then there’s the third main advantage, and this one proves to be the game changer in so many ways: Michael Jordan and his family want a cut of the sales from any product with his name on it. And Nike is the only company desperate enough to even consider such a proposition.

I know I’m spoiling a huge third-act twist by bringing this up, but I really don’t care in this case. The argument for giving Jordan a cut of the profits is easily the greatest thing this movie has going for it. See, the movie isn’t interested in arguing that Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time because of his achievements on the court — that’s a given. No, this film argues that Jordan is the GOAT because of his achievements off the court. Namely, because he was great enough to force an industry-shaking precedent that paved the way for lesser athletes to make greater profits off the items made and sold in their likeness.

(Side note: It’s worth pointing out that the filmmakers went very, VERY far out of their way to make sure young Michael Jordan barely gets a line, and his body double’s face is never visible.)

What’s sad is that this hugely important focus on more equitable pay and fairer treatment for professional and college athletes doesn’t come into play until the last half-hour, and it’s easily the movie’s strongest quality. But a close second would be the emphasis on stakes. At all times, at every turn, the filmmakers go out of their way to focus on the real human cost of failure or success in this venture. How many people would lose their jobs. What everyone would stand to lose if Nike took such another huge financial hit. The greatest and arguably most important challenge of filming any “true life” or well-known story is to trick the audience into forgetting that they already know exactly how the story is going to end, and this film accomplishes the task admirably.

With one minor exception.

I’m sorry to say that I found Sonny Vaccaro’s motivation rather lacking. Yes, it’s established that the character has an awful lot of layovers in Vegas, and his known compulsion for gambling makes for some great conflict with regard to his current high-stakes bet on Jordan. And yes, it’s heavily implied that Vaccaro has been around since the earliest days of Nike, so he’s got an emotional investment in the company. And yes, a lot of people are depending on Vaccaro to pull through for the sake of their livelihoods. Even so, none of that feels like strong enough or personal enough reason for Vaccaro to go to the outrageous lengths he goes to in this movie.

For comparison, consider Moneyball, in which Brad Pitt’s character has grown so defeated and disgusted by the archaic closed-minded status quo that he sets out to permanently reinvent it. I could also point to Hustle, in which Adam Sandler’s character tries to coach a young talent as a means of redeeming his own ill-fated basketball career while earning a promotion in his current line of work so he can spend more time with his family. That’s the deeply personal level of motivation Matt Damon’s character needed here, and all I’m seeing is a rerun of his turn in Ford v Ferrari.

For that matter, Ben Affleck seems to be going through the motions here as well, though his impression of an eccentric billionaire is at least mildly amusing. Jason Bateman is going through another iteration of his Michael Bluth routine. Chris Tucker is trying to balance his comedic persona with a more dramatic touch and it’s not working.

The standout of the cast is of course Viola Davis. She gets what might well be the single greatest scene in the movie, talking on the phone with Vaccaro about getting her son a cut of the Air Jordan profits. She doesn’t raise her voice, she doesn’t get aggressive, she just lays it out in plain and simple terms that this is the right thing to do, everyone knows damn well that it’s the right thing to do, and so this is how it’s going to be. It’s a commanding performance in a way I can’t put into words, and there’s nobody on Earth who could deliver that the way Davis does here.

That said, the scene is one example how this feels like a very wordy movie. This feels like a script comprised exclusively of monologues or dialogue exchanges that are admittedly well-written and performed well enough to give the illusion of depth, but they’re actually overlong and don’t really accomplish much of anything. It’s like a whole movie of “Oscar clips”.

For a key example, I could point to Marlon Wayans. He’s only in this movie for one scene. Yes, Wayans is delightful to see, he gets a fantastic bit of interplay with Matt Damon, his dialogue is beautifully written and superbly delivered. But for all of that, Wayans is only in the movie for a few brief minutes that could’ve been cut from the film entirely with no consequence. That pretty well sums up the movie as a whole, really.

Air is an example of a “so good it’s bad” movie. It’s a movie that doesn’t offer much of anything new, doesn’t take any major risks, and offers nothing remotely memorable, but it’s competently made and enjoyable enough in the moment. I love the soundtrack and the nostalgic ’80s presentation, even if the script seemed overdone and the camerawork was outright incompetent in places.

It’s a decent movie, well worth checking out, but you won’t be missing anything if you wait for home video.


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