Matt & Ben (and Viola) make early-year case as Oscar MVPs for 'Air'
In many ways, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have defined the last 30 years of movies. Rising with a bunch of other young actors in the early ‘90s, they shot their shot with 1997’s Good Will Hunting, walking away with an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in the process. Both have remained at the top of the industry ever since, being part of big franchises and grabbing multiple other Oscar nominations/wins.
They’re back together in a somewhat unlikely way in Air, which premiered here in Austin during SXSW. The film follows the courting of soon-to-be basketball superstar Michael Jordan by Nike to endorse their shoes. Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, who worked as a talent scout for Nike in the early 1980s. The then-nascent basketball division of the company had difficulty competing with the likes of Adidas and Converse to get players to wear their shoes, and they were looking to find the next attainable star from the now-legendary 1984 NBA Draft.
Convinced Jordan is worth more than any other player – or any other three players – Vaccaro pleads his case to Nike VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), along with Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina). But ultimately the person who will make or break the deal is Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis), a woman who’s not only protective of her son as a person, but of his potential legacy in the years to come.
Directed by Affleck and written by first-time screenwriter Alex Convery, the film is a light and fun look at a bit of sports history where the actual sport is rarely glimpsed. Anyone who’s had even a passing interest in the NBA in the past 40 years knows what an impact Jordan has had on the sport and shoe industry surrounding it. But somehow the film is able to make a story with a pre-ordained outcome into a compelling one, thanks to behind-the-scenes drama that they execute well.
Vaccaro and Knight are well-known names for sports fans, but they’re not in the public eye so much that people know what their personalities are. Damon and Affleck use this to their advantage, creating characters that perhaps hue closer to their real-life friendship than the men they’re portraying. The same sense of enjoyment pervades all of the inter-company relationships shown at Nike, so that even as the characters are stressing about their futures, the film never gets bogged down in unnecessary torment.
The focus on Deloris, not Michael, Jordan is also a smart choice. Not only does it allow the filmmakers to avoid the pitfall of casting the wrong person to portray one of the most famous men on Earth, but it brings in a level of emotionality that the film might not have had otherwise. Michael is still present, but they cleverly stage the scenes with the Jordan family so that Deloris is always the one in charge.
Speaking of casting, every role is filled almost perfectly. Damon and Affleck lead the way, naturally, and each is clearly having a ball. Bateman, with his deadpan demeanor, is a great foil for Damon, and their scenes together are a joy to watch. Davis, robbed of an Oscar nomination for The Woman King, could easily be nominated here, as she bonds the two sides of the story together. Supporting performances by Messina, Chris Tucker, Matthew Moher, Julius Tennon, and Marlon Wayans all serve to make the film better.
Air could have been a wonky deep-dive into sports statistics and business machinations, but Affleck and his team concentrate instead on the people involved in the deals, which is exactly what the story needed. It’s only April, but don’t be surprised if this film is a top contender during the 2023 awards season.
Air opens in theaters on April 5.