Review: ‘Air’ delves into backstory of Jordan’s iconic Nike sneakers

“Air” currently has an impressive 91% approval rating among critics and a 98% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

A poster for the movie "Air."
"Air" is a sports drama playing at Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter that is based on true events and the eventual financial windfall from the partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — One would think a two-hour historical dramatization about the branding and marketing of a Nike basketball shoe would be a snoozefest.

You’d be out of bounds.

Directed by Ben Affleck, the R-rated “Air” reunites the Oscar-winner with childhood friend and Academy Award-winning actor Matt Damon. They received international acclaim decades ago as a duo for their work in “Good Will Hunting,” costarring the late Robin Williams.

Affleck and Damon take moviegoers back to the leg warmers-wearing, neon-infused age of the 1980s in “Air” when the Oregon-based Nike Inc. was on the verge of closing its basketball shoe division due to poor sales; the footwear provider was known as the runner’s shoe company.

Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike scout of sorts of upcoming basketball players who may turn into rising stars in the NBA that Nike could partner with to wear and endorse its footwear. Vaccaro comes across as feisty or has a reputation for taking risks and thinking outside the box.


The biographical sports drama also includes a supporting role for Affleck as Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight, who at times along with other rank-and-file coworkers of Vaccaro’s try to rein in the outspoken and schlubby gambler played by Damon, who is fervent in his beliefs.

Jason Bateman plays a Nike employee in the motion picture who is reluctant and doubtful of Vaccaro’s efforts to save the basketball shoe division, which at the time was dominated by Adidas, whose athletic wear was worn and popularized by hip-hop acts such as Run-DMC.

Chris Tucker of “Rush Hour” fame surprisingly turns in a less-manic performance in “Air” as a Nike executive who also begrudgingly goes along with Vaccaro’s unconventional idea to spend Nike’s entire $250,000 budget to sign basketball players on only one rookie: Michael Jordan.

The future hall-of-famer is hardly a household name back then, but Vaccaro the talent scout senses greatness in Jordan and is even willing to put his career on the line in his attempt to woo Jordan — particularly the young man’s mother — to go with Nike instead of Adidas.

Jordan’s mother is played by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, whose breakthrough role was the civil rights-based domestic drama “The Help.” Davis in “Air” plays a caring mother who proves to be a shrewd negotiator (or powerful adversary, depending on a footwear company’s point of view).

Vaccaro circumvents the family’s agent and makes the trip to Wilmington, North Carolina, to speak directly with the mother, who lobbies for her son’s future financial stake as a promoter and believes as much as Vaccaro in her son’s abilities to jump-start sales for Nike’s shoes.

In a then-radical move, Nike creates a basketball shoe designed solely on Jordan “creating a partnership that revolutionizes the world of sports and contemporary culture,” according to a movie synopsis. Jordan continues to reap millions of dollars from the deal from shoe sales.

There is plenty of high stakes involved in the based-on-true-events film that goes down right to the buzzer as to whether Jordan agrees to wear and endorse what would become the first “Air Jordans” and treats the road to get to the arrangement as not an entirely foregone conclusion.


Earlier this week, a pair of Nike Air Jordan 13s worn by Jordan sold for a record-breaking $2.2 million at Sotheby’s, according to Statista , a provider of market and consumer data. Jordan had on the iconic red-and-black sneakers during his Chicago Bulls’ 1998 championship run.

“Air” currently has an impressive 91% approval rating among critics and a 98% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The consensus from the audience at “Ben Affleck and a terrific cast score with ‘Air,’ which is much more entertaining than any movie about a long-ago business deal has any right to be.”

FRANK LEE is the movie columnist for the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at 218-631-6470 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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