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Review: A different kind of underdog story in ‘Air’

Lindsey Bahr/The Associated Press | 4/27/2023, 6 p.m.
The new movie “Air” is technically about a shoe. There is nothing especially extraordinary about this shoe. As the Q-like ...
This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, left, and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in a scene from “Air.” Photo from Amazon Prime via The Associated Press

The new movie “Air” is technically about a shoe. There is nothing especially extraordinary about this shoe. As the Q-like Nike designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) explains, the last significant change to footwear was made some 600 years ago when the decision was made to differentiate the right and left feet. The Air Jordan is, at the end of the day, just another shoe.

No one coos about how comfortable it is. No one waxes poetic about its performance enhancing abilities or how many podiatrists recommend it for sporting purposes. No one even tries it on.

That’s because “Air,” directed by Ben Affleck from a smart script by Alex Convery, is not really about the shoe at all. Nor is it about Michael Jordan, who has exactly one line in the film and is mostly seen from behind and in silhouette. It is about the men – and they were all men – of Nike who defied the odds and signed the rookie despite being a very distant third to Adidas and Converse in the basketball sneaker game in 1984.

This is not a sports movie, however. If “Moneyball,” a spiritual cousin to “Air,” was baseball-adjacent, “Air” is about as far away from the game of basketball as one can get. The sport and romance of basketball in “Air” is almost completely beside the point, which is in some ways the most honest way for a couple of Gen-Xers to make a sincere movie about a corporate brand’s biggest success.

“Air” is more “Mad Men,” but without the glamour. In 1984, everything was brown and drab, except for the grape-colored sports car driven by Nike CEO Phil Knight (Mr. Affleck, in a comedic role about C-suite eccentricities and ineffectuality). Even the new stuff looked old. There are only so many ways cinematographer Robert Richardson can shoot a corporate office park and series of conversations between men in ill-fitting polos and khakis. But Affleck and his music supervisor do have fun with their conventional but not ineffective needle drops.

The center of “Air” is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a Nike exec with a basketball scout’s eye for rising talent. He is not, at least on the surface, a slam dunk movie hero. Sonny is out of shape, as the movie reminds us with cruel frequency, he’s middle-aged, he doesn’t have a family and he seems to do all his grocery shopping at the gas station. All he has is this job, which isn’t going especially well. And his big idea to bet on Jordan, and Jordan alone, has everyone — Knight; Jordan’s hot tempered agent David Falk (Chris Messina); Nike execs Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker); college ball coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans); and Jordan’s mom Deloris (Viola Davis) — essentially telling him he’s crazy.

One big issue with “Air” is that the dramatic stakes never really quite crystalize or spark excitement in the way that the best movies do when you go in knowing the ending. There are no life-or-death scares or thrilling plane escapes at the end for Mr. Affleck to fall back on for tension. Nike was not even an unsuccessful company on the brink of collapse, they just hadn’t cracked the basketball market to the satisfaction of their shareholders yet. It’s hard, as an audience member, to discern whether your own apathy is because you know the outcome or because the story hasn’t convinced you to care enough.

Still, this is movie that also has the potential to get better with time and rewatches. “Air” coasts quite well on its compelling, funny and self-aware script (which even allows room for an amusing disagreement about who exactly came up with the name Air Jordan) and charismatic movie stars. And Damon, who gets one show-stopping monologue, is the perfect actor to carry the film in his first time acting for his old pal. Here’s hoping that the longtime friends make this a habit.

“Air” pivots about halfway through when the Jordans finally enter the picture and, through Ms. Davis’ stoic performance, add a much-needed human element. It’s easy to forget that athletes being compensated justly for the value of their image is a relatively new phenomenon. One wonders why the movie couldn’t have mainly been about her and her savvy.

There is an admirably sly subversiveness to the whole endeavor in its refusal to glamorize the shoe, the company or the guys they’ve made a movie about. These are white-collar cubicle dwellers just trying to make it through the week and keep their jobs. I’m not even sure the movie buys into its subjects’ self-written and occasionally contradictory mythologies. Credit to the filmmakers that this is not a TED talk.

How can you be romantic about a billion-dollar shoe company?

“Air,” an Amazon Studios/MGM release in theaters now, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language through- out. Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.