Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I remember the days when Hollywood focused its rose-colored glasses on the 1950s. Over the last few years, this forgiving gaze has settled solidly on the 1980s. Last week, we talked about this question with the release of Tetris. This week, we’re turning our focus to the shoes every kid wanted for at least a brief minute in the 1980s and 1990s, the Air Jordans. Will Air bring life to a story we seemingly know the answer to? Or is this simply another attempt to mine Gen-X and Millennial nostalgia? Read on!
Air follows the exploits of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a Nike talent executive, in 1984. The struggling shoe company is desperately in need of a break. Sonny, it seems, has a crazy idea. Nike is going to sign Michael Jordan. So what if he’s a fresh-faced kid who has yet to set foot on an NBA court? How about the fact Jordan is desperate to sign with Nike’s competition? None of that matters. Sonny has a feeling about the kid. Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, and Chris Tucker co-star in the movie. Ben Affleck directs Air from a script by Alex Convery.
In Air, Affleck and company find themselves with a tricky undertaking. Ultimately, we all know how this story ends. Air Jordans are still best-selling shoes the world over. Nike comes out on top, and history is made. Chances are, many of those old enough to appreciate this 1980s nostalgia bomb of a film either had or wanted a pair of Air Jordans at some point in their childhood.
Like last week’s Tetris, director Affleck and writer Convery pack Air to the gills with nostalgia. This ranges from a killer soundtrack that brings so many hits it distracts from the movie to including every 1980s reference Gen-X and elder Millennials will remember. (Wham! “Where’s the Beef?”. Cabbage Patch Kids.) They might not have anything to do with the narrative at hand, but it sets the scene and strikes an easy and fun nostalgic chord.
However, the nostalgia is leaned on heavily to cover one thing. There’s zero dramatic tension here. No suspense. Nike wins the contract … I mean … Air Jordans! This fact places added weight on the script and the characters to keep the audience invested when they already know the ending. This is made even more tricky thanks to the creative decision to avoid showing Michael Jordan in a story that hinges on his legendary presence.
Air decides to feature Michael Jordan as a faceless presence within this story, and the choice becomes distracting. 2022’s She Said utilizes a similar strategy in depicting producer Harvey Weinstein and is far more successful as they only feature Weinstein in person once. He’s a powerful figure who lords over the movie like a terrifying unseen force.
In Air, the problem lies in the fact that, as a character, Michael Jordan has more screen time. This becomes painfully noticeable as the Jordan family arrives for their meeting with Nike. As the young basketball player, Damian Delano Young struggles to keep his face hidden and, at one point, stares at a wall while conversations continue around him. As the scene is structured, it’s awkward and highly noticeable.
Ultimately, though, the script’s success relies on Michael Jordan’s memory and legacy to carry this narrative, but this power to come across as Jordan’s shown on screen. The audience is constantly reminded of his inexperience at this point. This is 1984. He’s a wide-eyed 20-year-old yet to step on an NBA court. His youth is emphasized. He’s repeatedly called a “skinny” kid. He’s not yet the man he’d grow to become.
However, in the decision not to show Jordan’s face, the film crafts the youngster as less of a character and more of an ideal. At the same time, there are moments (particularly in the Nike meeting) where he’s shot to look powerful and imposing, mere minutes before he’s shown as a sullen youngster staring at pictures on the wall while the grown-ups talk around him.
As mentioned, this isn’t powerful. It’s awkward. This inconsistency in Air‘s depiction forces the audience to bring their memories of Jordan’s legacy to compensate for what isn’t shown. This becomes all too clear when in the last act, the movie uses awkward montage footage from the actual Jordan’s life to play over a highly cinematic and stylized speech from Sonny. The moment hits an emotional beat, but it shows the struggle in the script’s perspective.
Writing bluntly, this is ultimately a lose/lose decision for the film. In 2023, Michael Jordan lives on as one of the greatest basketball players (if not athletes) in United States sports history. His face is instantly recognizable. Any performer (short of a de-aged Jordan himself) will stand out as NOT Michael Jordan.
The combination of the lack of dramatic tension (it’s not a spoiler to say Nike wins the contract) and the script’s deliberate de-emphasization of Michael Jordan place added weight on the other characters in the story. This is a decidedly A-list cast that succeeds in bringing a tongue-in-cheek flair to the narrative.
However, in many cases, they’re just that. Characters. This is particularly true as it relates to Affleck and Damon’s work. While both actors show likability and effortless charisma, these aren’t transformative performances. It’s challenging to lose either in these portrayals.
At the same time, though, Viola Davis must be called out as the film’s MVP. She continues to shine in any role she tackles. As Deloris Jordan, Davis captures the narrative’s humanity. She’s a mother fighting for her son and the greatness she sees within him. Deloris exists as a mother and businesswoman at the center of her story. She doesn’t need Sonny or Nike to make this interesting.
Meanwhile, Jason Bateman puts forward a beautiful performance as Rob Strasser, Nike’s Marketing Director. Bateman matches up incredibly well with Damon as a scene partner and kills it on his own in the film’s quieter moments. He transcends the usual “skeptical boss” character to personify the humanity the Nike office desperately needs. Bateman brings Strasser to life, allowing him to exist outside his role with the shoe company. He’s a struggling father. He needs this job, and his presence injects potential consequences into Sonny’s actions. If this deal falters, more than Sonny’s career is on the line.
When all is said and done, Air is a relaxing nostalgia bomb of a movie. Director Ben Affleck dives hard into the 1980s to tell this complicated tale. The intersection between history and filmmaking does make this a challenging story to tell. Ultimately, the presentation is not perfect. However, this is a fun film with likable and charismatic performances. For basketball fans and anyone who remembers the 1980s, there will be plenty here to like.
Air premieres in theaters around the country beginning April 5, 2023.
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