Review: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ drops on Prime Video and it’s a total slam dunk

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Air'

When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck reunited 25 years after “Good Will Hunting” (1997) to film the underdog Air Jordan biopic “Air,” they initially expected to release it straight to streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

However, a shifting pandemic business model and positive buzz about the movie inspired them to release it first in theaters, grossing $85 million at the global box office. It was proof that midrange, adult movies still have a place as Amazon pledges $1 billion a year on theatrical releases to generate extra hype for their streaming platform.

This Friday, “Air” officially drops on Amazon Prime Video and it’s a slam dunk to rival other sports-business gems from Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire” (1996) to Brad Pitt in “Moneyball” (2011) to Adam Sandler in “Hustle” (2022). Screenwriter Alex Convery got the idea while watching the ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance” (2020), then penned the script that appeared on the 2021 Black List before it was bought by Amazon Studios for $125 million.

Set at the Nike headquarters in Oregon in 1984, the film follows Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), who is tasked by C.E.O. Phil Knight (Affleck) and Marketing V.P. Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), to save Nike’s basketball shoe division by finding a famous NBA spokesman. Known for running shoes, Nike can’t compete with Converse and Adidas, but Sonny pursues Michael Jordan, the No. 3 pick in that year’s NBA Draft, from the University of North Carolina.

Damon shines as the lead, not afraid to put on a few pounds to play the self-proclaimed “middle-aged white guy” shooting his shot. Audiences can relate to the underdog story of an everyman risking his career on a hunch that no one else sees. He recognizes the competitive fire of a kid cut from his high-school team who grew into a college freshman trusted by coach Dean Smith to take the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA national championship.

Affleck is always best in supporting roles, from “Good Will Hunting” (1997) to “The Tender Bar” (2021). His portrayal of Knight is unique, propping his bare feet up on his desk and doing breathing exercises. At first, he’s reluctant to wager his entire basketball budget on one player, insecurely barging late into a meeting, then bravely rolling the dice after clearing his mind on a jog, remembering the risk it took to launch Nike in the first place.

The supporting cast is excellent, namely Bateman as Strasser, who worries Charles Barkley is too controversial and John Stockton is from little-known Gonzaga, his trepidation stemming from child custody issues as a divorced dad. Marlon Wayans shines as George Raveling, Jordan’s assistant coach at the ’84 Olympics with MLK memories. Chris Tucker adds comic relief as Nike’s Howard White, courting Jordan’s father as the “only brother in the room.”

While Julius Tennon believably plays the ill-fated James Jordan (murdered in 1993), it’s Viola Davis who steals the show as Michael’s mom Deloris. Davis gives the film’s most important performance as she is the decision maker of the Jordan household and the gatekeeper of Michael’s endorsement deals. The film’s best scenes come as Davis and Damon size each other up at a backyard picnic table or over phone calls hashing out deals for sneaker royalties.

Affleck proves that actors can get the best performances out of fellow actors. “Air” is a reminder that he is a damn good director from “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) to “The Town” (2010) to Best Picture winner “Argo” (2012). He grabs us from the jump with a montage of ’80s pop-culture images that work perfectly in a film about marketing, along with a nostalgic soundtrack of Dire Straits, Night Ranger, The Clash, Mike + The Mechanics and The Dazz Band.

Affleck’s best wink is using The Alan Parson Project’s “Sirius,” the Chicago Bulls entrance theme, while his smartest directing decision is to never show Jordan’s face. While there is one awkward moment of the stand-in actor intentionally facing a back wall, it mostly creates a mystique like William Wyler not showing Christ’s face in “Ben-Hur” (1959). After all, how could anyone authentically play Michael Jordan except for Michael Jordan?

My one lament is that I wish the film ended with an extended barrage of Michael Jordan highlights over the end credits. I thought it was coming as Affleck played the iconic “Be Like Mike” song from Jordan’s 1991 Gatorade commercials, but we instead get only a few clips before cutting to his speech about his mom. I would have loved a chronological journey of Jordan highlights to prove to these LeBron fans that MJ is truly the greatest of all time.

Still, the final act sticks the thematic landing as title cards show how Jordan’s sneaker deal made him the first player to receive a percentage of sales, how Vaccaro became a key advocate in a 2014 class-action lawsuit for colleges to compensate athletes for using their name and likeness. Damon and Affleck are likewise founding a new production company, Artists Equity, built on the concept of profit-sharing among below-the-line crew members.

This theme captures the zeitgeist of Hollywood as the Writers Guild of America is on strike for streaming royalties. As Jordan’s mom says, “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it,” and a streaming platform is just a streaming platform until writers, directors, actors and crew members step into it. To the tech moguls at Amazon, Apple and Netflix wondering whether to fairly pay their creatives, I have three words for you: Just do it.

4.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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