A breath of fresh “Air”

Air (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker) – As sports movies go, Air is a breath of … well … fresh Air. Not since Moneyball have we had a feel-good story about sports. Like Moneyball, the story isn’t about a player … although it is really the story of how Michael Jordan became an industry by having a shoe named for him … but about a person behind the scenes. In Moneyball, it’s Billy Beane.

In Air, it’s Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the Nike representative who convinced owner Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to put the company’s then-scarce basketball money all on one player – Michael Jordan. Although Nike was a powerhouse in sports like track & field, it was being lapped by Adidas and Converse in the quest for the big names in pro basketball.  While MJ was highly touted coming out of national champion, North Carolina, he wasn’t necessarily viewed as a generational talent … at least by anyone other than his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), and Sonny Vaccaro if this movie is to be believed.

Sure, Adidas and Converse wanted him. And MJ was obsessed with Adidas’s merch(andise) and shoes. Nike wasn’t even in the running, as MJ’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) makes perfectly clear in Act I of the film. Vaccaro knows that Nike is faltering in basketball and needs to put all its eggs in one basket. Against all established practice, he goes to see the Jordan family. This pisses off Falk but wins him points with Deloris, who is clearly the decision-maker of the family.

The rest is pure, predictable Hollywood filmmaking and sports history. Not to spoil it for the two people in the world who don’t already know it, but MJ ends up with Nike, gets his own shoe, dubbed Air Jordan, and becomes king of the world.

With an all-star, A-list cast, Air can’t miss. Affleck directs in his best effort since Argo. Damon added 25-30 pounds to play the paunchy Vaccaro. Davis gets to play a real person with an ease that must have been a relief for her. And Chris Messina gets to represent the stereotypical jerk of an agent usually portrayed in TV (Entourage) and film, Jerry McGuire notwithstanding.

Air is every sports fan’s movie dream. It’s light, relatively short, full of stars, and tells a familiar story without being preachy or melodramatic. Damon and Affleck, best friends since childhood, teamed up for the first time since Good Will Hunting. Affleck does (at least) his third movie with Jason Bateman (Extract, State of Play), who plays Nike’s chief marketing executive. It’s all very cozy and comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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