Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is tasked by his superiors at Nike, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), to track down and sign basketball players ahead of the new season. Vaccaro believes he can sign one player, an untested rookie, to Nike and build a shoe around him. But first, he has to convince his mother (Viola Davis) and his agent (Chris Messina) of the deal first. The rookie's name? Michael Jordan...
Like 'Jerry Maguire' or just about any sports-adjacent movie you can think, 'Air' is working on a whole lot of self-belief to engage its audience. In fact, that's really the core theme of 'Air' - believing in something, and trying to convince everyone of your belief. It's not faith, and it's not proselytising either, but it's more about convincing oneself that their faith hasn't been misguided. For the most part of 'Air', it's a process story about how Matt Damon's character worked and prodded his bosses at Nike - played ably by Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, and Ben Affleck - to buy into his scheme of betting their entire budget on one player.
Compared to something like 'King Richard', there's much less cloying sentimentality at work in 'Air' and much more affection and reverence for the sport itself. Sure, all sport is high drama but basketball is the kind of game that can play right to the buzzer and can be turned around in an instant. It's not as drawn out as soccer and doesn't have the kind of grinding complexity of boxing or MMA. 'Uncut Gems' captured a lot of the tension in the game itself, but 'Air' gets at why it's so compelling - because it's dominated by one character, standing out among a team, leading the way.
We all know, going into this, that it worked and that Michael Jordan became the icon that he was. 'Air' is about seeing greatness and trying to make everyone else see it. Michael Jordan barely registers in this movie. You never see his face, except in archival footage that's mixed together with a rousing speech from Damon in the dying minutes. His achievements are all ahead of him, yet Matt Damon's character can see it, and so too can Viola Davis as his on-screen mother.
For his part, Damon plays Vaccaro with a surprising amount of subtlety. Yes, he might be a problem gambler, but there's also this aura of hope around him without it seeming like it's just obliviousness. It's a tough balancing act, but one that Damon is able to carry out while driving the story forward. Affleck, pulling double-duty as co-star and director, turns up more to counterbalance the hope with the pressures of their situation. Nike, at this point, has no foothold (no pun intended) in the basketball world and will likely shutter the entire division if this deal doesn't work. On top of that, you've got Affleck - as Phil Knight, of course - spouting Buddhist aphorisms every so often.
Affleck's direction isn't particularly revolutionary or all that exciting. For a movie that's set in the '80s and leans on it so much, it doesn't have the same kind of confidence or visual flair you'd expect. Instead, Affleck opts to let dialogue and needle drops clear the way for the story. Dire Straits, Tangerine Dream, and the like all get a run-out at different points in the story, not to mention a montage or two of the very shoe in question being made.
This might make 'Air' sound like it's corny and earnest, and it is in parts, but the way in which it goes about it comes from a place of genuine reverence. It's not trying to be an Oscar-winning crowdpleaser or go for broke - instead, it tells the story of those who saw something and the belief it took to make everyone else see it.