Sonny Vaccaro knows his basketball. As played with reliable conviction by Matt Damon, the head scout in Nike’s dwindling hoops division has a keen eye for the next great players, attending high school all-star tournaments around the country and scanning for potential endorsements. But Sonny is also a gambler, and on the tail end of his trips he jets over to Las Vegas to lock in a couple parlays, betting on NBA money lines and spreads before throwing all his winnings away at the craps table a minute later. You get the sense this has become his beleaguered ritual. At some point those basketball instincts and his penchant to go for broke will align and finally pay off.
It’s a shrewd preview of what’s to come in AIR, director Ben Affleck’s entertaining, workmanlike retelling of how Vaccaro helped an underdog shoe company sink a half-court heave and land a licensing deal with Michael Jordan, changing its fortunes––and the sports industry itself––forever. That should be neither surprise nor spoiler. The Nike brand has been synonymous with its star ambassador ever since he joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984 and proceeded to become the greatest player of all time with the most popular sneaker of all time. But starting an empire sometimes takes convincing, and Alex Convery’s debut script invests in the late-night meetings, backdoor negotiations, and last-ditch speeches required to nudge and persuade in order to make history.
Most of that hustling and rule-breaking belongs to Sonny, discontented with Nike’s stingy spending and inability to attract legitimate players away from Adidas and Converse, its two top competitors in the basketball shoe market. At a meeting led by advertising manager Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Sonny sits around a table with his colleagues and listens to a bunch of uncompelling pitches for players to target in the upcoming draft. It feels like a scene lifted straight from Moneyball. Just as Billy Beane tries to shake up Oakland’s roster with the burdens of old-school scouts and financial shackles, Sonny scoffs at the same tired suggestions by his team. If Nike is ever going to escape the stigma of being just a jogging company––and if he’s ever going to keep his job––it’s got to rethink its entire methodology to stop attracting mediocrity.
So he hatches a plan. Instead of dispersing the basketball division’s $250,000 allotment on a few rookies, Sonny wants to push all the company chips onto No. 23. He sees something special in Jordan, replaying the Tar Heel guard’s highlights at home and watching his confidence emanate through the grainy screen. But how does he coax CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) into letting him blow through his entire budget on one player? The goofy-looking maverick built his company taking risks (on his wall hangs a list of rules, one of which states “break the rules”) but he’s recently dulled his instincts with an investor board that he must answer to. And how does he convince Jordan, who has already publicly announced his intent to sign with Adidas, to give them a shot? That’ll mean some contentious conversations with his volatile agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and the gutsy play to sneak a visit to Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), the real decision-maker of the family.
This is Affleck’s first directing effort since 2016’s Live By Night, but nothing suggests the rust of seven years away from the camera. That’s partly because there’s not much to fuss about here. Influenced by the unassuming, bland nature of cubicles and Oregon’s dreary weather, Affleck has coated AIR in manila file folder pantones, emphasizing the ordinary nature and humble origins of this future billion-dollar company. Thus he captures the most compelling moments during office pop-ins, contentious phone calls, and quick exchanges, interspersed with a soundtrack of on-the-nose yacht rock needle drops (from Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”) that would make Robert Zemeckis jealous. It’s a “dudes rock” movie that revels in business discussions happening while one executive stands at a urinal and another yammers from a stall, then leers and lingers on the handful of beautiful female secretaries taking their messages.
Maybe casting his best friend seems an easy excuse for Affleck to lean into those fraternal vibes, but Damon has always been one of the more reliable avatars for affable, middle-aged, overweight men seeking their one big break. At this point in his career it’s hard not to root for him, especially when you know he’s already going to win. Still, the rest of the cast does its best to grate against such inevitability. There are small, crucial parts for Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White and Marlon Wayans as former basketball coach Geroge Raveling, and Bateman makes the most of his playing time, like in one scene where he shares his concerns about fatherhood as he and Sonny consider the potential cost of losing out on Jordan. As a helpful contrast, Affleck shakes up the normcore aesthetic with his flashy sweatsuits, sunglasses, and sports car, playing up a hamminess and aloofness in Knight that carefully treads the line of mockery. And then there’s Davis, anchoring the movie’s opposing side with the calm assurance that her son will be the best to ever play the game.
In many ways, AIR embodies the last decade of sports movies that have pivoted from showing action on the field or court, instead peeking into corner offices and classrooms to examine the power players and dealmakers pulling the strings. But that doesn’t mean Convery can’t follow the sports-movie formula, which builds to Damon’s satisfying big speech in front of Jordan (who remains faceless throughout his brief appearances) and his parents. “A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it,” he tells them, a quote Rob uses to inspire designer and Nike shoe scientist Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) before beginning work on the Air Jordan line. Affleck believes in that thesis, too. The Nike deal––which Deloris manipulates to the very end––allowed Jordan a share of the shoe’s revenue and began the idea that an athlete could become their own brand. Four decades later it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
AIR opens in wide release on April 5.