SXSW Film Review: Air

The good guys win in this charming origin story for the Air Jordan

Ben Affleck in Air, which received its world premiere at the SXSW Film & Television Festival

I don't care about Michael Jordan. But then, I don't care about David Justice or Buck Weaver and that doesn't stop Moneyball and Eight Men Out from being on my list of all-time favorite sports movies.

I have a sneaking suspicion that SXSW 2023 closing night selection Air, the story of the origin of the Air Jordan sneaker, may end up on that list. Because sports movies that concentrate on the actual playing of the game are pointing the camera the wrong way. The back office is where the real action is.

In this case. In this case, it's the Beaverton, Oregon offices of the Nike corporation in 1984 where schlubby, paunchy sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (a very downbeat Matt Damon) is charged with finding the rising college talents headed for the NBA draft that Nike can endorse. Or rather, that will accept Nike's endorsement. Converse runs the game; Adidas is the cool kid on the block, courtesy of Run DMC; meanwhile Nike is the other company, discounted in no small measure because they're the weirdos on the west coast, as hyper-aggressive sports agent Dave Falk (a gloriously overblown Chris Messina) belligerently reminds Vaccaro. Which is unfortunate, because Vaccaro, a compulsive gambler with a great eye for talent, has decided to bet the house on one of Falk's talents: a talented 21-year-old called Michael Jordan.

And this is where director Ben Affleck (working from a script by Alex Convery) makes a truly fascinating decision. This is the story of the deal, and Jordan himself was not really part of the process. Instead, his interests were represented by his parent, Dolores and James (played by Viola Davis and her real-life husband, Julius Tennon), and so the basketball megastar is silent and only seen from behind - and never, ever on the court. He was winning his victories elsewhere, and this is instead about the team that came together to make the Air Jordan not only a hugely successful shoe, but also a landmark in sports licensing.

It's here that Air diverges from Moneyball, a movie in which brutal decisions are made and accepted in search of a championship. Vaccaro, director of marketing Rob Strasser (a suitably fraught Jason Bateman), future Air Jordan brand VP Howard White (the returning and severely missed Chris Tucker), and delightfully idiosyncratic shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) aren't in a battle with James and Dolores, but negotiating something bigger and better for everyone. Meanwhile, as portrayed with steely grace by Davis, Dolores wants what's best for her son in an industry that has treated athletes - especially Black athletes - as disposable assets. Floating through and above the dance, then occasionally blundering through the deal-making and understandings, is Affleck as Nike boss Phil Knight, the test model for the modern whacko CEO.

At the film's SXSW premiere, Affleck readily proffered that, while drawn from true life, this is not the definitive history of the Air Jordan. Instead, much as with its fellow investment drama from this year, BlackBerry it rounds some edges and simplifies convoluted time lines to get to more exciting and intriguing truths (case in point: Affleck manages to slide in both versions of where the name Air Jordan came from, as a fitting commentary on the ambiguity of memory).

It's also a film that very subtly trades on 1980s nostalgia for surprisingly subversive ends. Excellently-curated needle drops and stock footage of memorable mementoes and moments from the era seem like set dressing, but a timely speech from Bateman serves as a reminder that this was the era of ever-growing exploitation, and that doing right by an athlete or by anyone was a rarity. Moreover, the presentation of all those instantly recognizable images and still-hummable sounds is a reminder that this is about how two inseparable icons joined that pop culture pantheon: Michael Jordan, the celebrity, and the Air Jordan, the embodiment of the man. As always, Affleck remains one of the directors who can disguise a powerful parable as giddy, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

Closing Night Film

Screening Section, World Premiere

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