If you haven’t seen Air, the Ben Affleck-Matt Damon film about Nike’s efforts to sign Michael Jordan as an endorser does something few films these days bother with: telling a story that’s not reliant on gimmicks or special effects, yet still managing to soar.
The trick isn’t even in revealing Jordan himself. The NBA legend remains obscured throughout his meeting with Nike bosses Phil Knight (Affleck), recruiter Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker); instead, his mom Deloris (Viola Davis) takes a front-and-center role. She’s the one looking out for her son’s future.
Like Affleck’s Argo, the Alex Convery-scripted ensemble piece directed by Ben focuses on a specific moment from a retro past (the ‘80s) and tells a true(-ish) story. I’m not sure how strictly accurate Sonny’s rousing speech is at the end of the film, but it works because it knows what only we in the audience—living in the present—understand, and what possibly Sonny Vaccaro understands: the arc and parabola of fame and media attention, the burden of great responsibility, the vicissitudes of life and tragedy (all of this outlined in future clips of Jordan’s ups and downs). And all of this brought home in a few paragraphs of a speech that brings the Jordan saga to some kind of cohesion, and a satisfying landing.
And all of it pretty much takes place in a Nike boardroom. It could be a stage play—a morality play, even. It helps that Damon is so engaging, Chris Tucker stands out as the-only-black-man-at-Nike who Jordan-whispers the parents of their remarkable boy, and Davis is a force of nature as his mom. They could have spent a bit more time on the mechanics of sealing a percentage deal that, arguably, changed professional sports forever, but getting there is so much fun, we can’t really complain too much. Storytelling still delivers, at the movies.
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Air is showing in cinemas, through Warner Bros. Pictures.