Air Drama

Review: ‘Air’ is a Feel-Good Underdog Story and a Light-on-Its-Feet Pop Culture History Lesson

March 29, 2023Ben MK

From Rudy to The Mighty Ducks, underdog sports films hold a special place in the hearts of moviegoers. Whether it's boxing, bobsledding, football or hockey, there's nothing audiences love more than rooting for the little guy and watching them triumph when the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them. It's a tried-and-true cinematic formula that has come to define the genre; and in the inspirational, based-on-a-true-story drama Air, director Ben Affleck applies that very same feel-good formula to the rise of iconic shoe brand Nike, with exceptionally winning results.

The year is 1984, and the landscape of the athletic footwear industry is much different from what it is today. With basketball players like Larry Bird and hip hop artists like Run DMC behind them, Converse and Adidas have been dominating the market, leaving smaller companies like Nike struggling to compete. It's a dilemma Nike's board of directors have been eager to find a solution to, which is why Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) has hired basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). Along with basketball-player-turned-executive Howard White (Chris Tucker) and Vice President of Marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Sonny has been trying to to discover the next great athlete to represent the company's fledgling basketball shoe division. But what if they could somehow sign the NBA's third overall draft pick — a 21-year-old rookie by the name of Michael Jordan?

The very notion seems like a pipe dream, but for Sonny, there's something about MJ that makes him feel like it's a dream worth pursuing. Against his own better judgment, the directives from his boss, and even MJ's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), Sonny rents a car and heads for Louisiana, where he intends to have a face-to-face meeting with MJ's parents, James and Deloris Jordan (Julius Tennon and Viola Davis). It soon becomes apparent, however, that MJ is no ordinary basketball star. And so if Nike is to have any hope of courting him, they'll have to think outside the paint. Approaching the company's resident shoe designer, Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), Sonny and Rob set out to do something no other player in the industry has ever done — create a sneaker custom-designed for MJ himself. But with time working against them, will their revolutionary plan succeed?

With a screenplay by Alex Convery, what follows is both a pop culture history lesson and Affleck and Damon's best film together since Good Will Hunting, transporting viewers back to the early '80s via the fashion, music and sensibilities of the era, while also using the time period as a backdrop to tell one of the most charming and electric underdog stories in recent memory. Whereas hit shows like HBO's Succession excel at showcasing just how corrupt big corporations can be, here we have a tale set at the complete opposite end of the spectrum — one that promotes old-fashioned principles like hard work and perseverance, and where the characters aren't morally bankrupt but are instead driven by ideals and motivated by the need to do what's right.

Make no mistake, this movie wouldn't exist were it not for the athletic prowess of Jordan himself. And while Affleck's latest directorial effort does acknowledge the man, the myth and the legend, by no means is he its main focus. Instead, Air stays light on its feet by shining the spotlight on those who helped make Number 23 the household name and beloved icon that he is today. And whether you're a basketball fan, a diehard sneakerhead, or just your average moviegoer, it's this everyday human element that we can all relate to.

Air releases April 5, 2023 from Warner Bros. Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of Rated R for language throughout. Its runtime is 1 hr. 52 min.

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