REVIEW: Air (2023)

It’s been seven years since Ben Affleck directed a movie (or seven years since a movie he directed was released, to be more accurate), and Air shows us what we’ve been missing. This movie is excellent, a relentless, endlessly human, and distinctly American story about people who broke the rules and changed their part of the country for the better.

In 1984, Nike was at the bottom of the shoe company totem pole, with Adidas, Converse, and others having more money at their disposal and, thus, their pick of star athletes to market their products. So in the dumps is Nike that they’re considering shutting down their basketball division, with the pressure on their team – particularly Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a headhunter and sort of general idea man – to find a talent they can afford to sell their shoes. Then, Sonny watches a tape of Michael Jordan, a student athlete who’s been signed by the Chicago Bulls, and sees the future of the sport and the savior of his company… if he can get anyone to believe him.

Movies like Air, when they’re made well – and this one is – fascinate me because they take a subject that should be mundane and make it exciting. Air is essentially a bunch of people talking about selling sneakers and getting someone who may or may not be a celebrity one day to endorse them. Yet when it ended, I felt like I was out of breath. There’s a rolling pace to the film that works not only because it makes it entertaining to watch but because it mirrors the desperation of the characters. These guys are starting down the barrel of joblessness and failure, of sinking a company and, in Sonny’s case, getting his friends fired because they took a chance on his dream. That dread is infused in almost every scene, and I imagine it’s a combination of Affleck’s direction, the editing, and the script.

It’s also in the acting, and Air has a stellar cast that breathes life into every character. Matt Damon is very much the lead; his Sonny Vaccaro drives the plot and is in virtually every scene. Air is similar in certain ways to another recent movie that starred Damon (which I also loved), Ford v. Ferrari. But Damon never repeats himself from that movie, and Sonny is a distinct character. He’s a shlubby, middle-aged guy with no family and no responsibilities who likes to take big swings. An early scene shows him gambling while on a Vegas scouting trip; he wins, he loses, but the point for him is making the bets. A lesser film would have portrayed him as an addict, but Air doesn’t do that; Sonny just likes to take chances. And when he discovers Michael Jordan, he believes in him so strongly he wants to take the biggest chance of his life.


Well, “discovers” isn’t exactly right. Jordan is known at this point, and he’s recognized as a talent, but he’s not MICHAEL JORDAN yet. That’s what Sonny sees: an American icon, a star waiting in the wings, the guy who will raise basketball to his level rather than the inverse. His quest – and it feels like that – is to get others to see it too, or at least to believe in him enough that they’ll let him take a shot on Jordan. The problem is that he’s playing with other people’s money and careers, as well as Jordan’s. A poignant scene with a co-worker makes it clear to the dreamer how his failure will affect other people and how the rules he’s breaking have swept some of them up in his gamble against their will. Damon makes all of this come alive while keeping Sonny a good man every step of the way.

The other actors do the same with the supporting characters, who, one by one, find their way to joining Sonny. Jason Bateman plays Sonny’s immediate boss, Rob Strasser, and he’s fantastic. He begins the movie as a typical Jason Bateman character, with the quips and responses that dress someone down before they even realize it (and they’re all hilarious). But over time, he stops being the sardonic boss and becomes a regular guy who’s being directed by his subordinate, a man with a life who’s putting it on the line for Sonny. Bateman wrings the humanity out of that expertly. Chris Tucker is Howard White, Sonny’s best friend at the office (who, according to Affleck, wasn’t in the original script, but Michael Jordan himself stressed White’s importance to the deal), and while he’s very funny, he’s more than just a comic side character. Tucker plays him like a salesman who’s always on, as if, aside from Sonny, it’s hard to tell if he’s doing his job or just talking, which makes him invaluable in a business meeting. And Affleck himself plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, a former dreamer who’s had to adjust to the “real world” of shareholders and limited funds. Knight is the dreamer who forgot how to dream, and one of Sonny’s biggest challenges is reminding him how to do that.


The other standout is Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother. This character could have easily gone wrong, deified and portrayed as some kind of all-knowing caricature. But she’s not; she’s just a mother who wants to look out for her son. Her instinct is to defer to Michael’s agent, but Sonny has a sincerity that speaks to her. The trailer is a bit misleading, making her seem standoffish and angry, but she’s not that at all. She has a reputation as being the ruler of the roost, and to an extent, she is, but she’s also friendly and welcoming, perfectly willing to listen to Sonny’s offer. Viola Davis can play a role like this in her sleep, but she never phones it in or forgets to make Deloris a real person, a mother with as much skin in the game as anyone because it’s her son’s future. 

This group of people changed the way celebrity endorsements – certainly by sports figures – are made, and it’s stunning to see not just the hell they go through but the results of their hard work and determination. Air is in love with America and the possibilities it affords, and seeing Sonny, Deloris, Phil, Rob, and Howard – and Michael Jordan – change business for the better, you will be too. And while it’s an American story, its themes are universal: individuality, taking chances, believing what you know in your heart is right despite everyone insisting that you’re wrong. Those are the people who change the world, and Air celebrates them.


It also celebrates the 80s, and I love the aesthetic Air creates. The clothes are incredible, and not just the suits or the Nike shoes. Matt Damon, the everyman among the corporate suits, wears Members Only jackets and shirts that look like he raided my dad’s closet. (I’m not even kidding; the coloring is different, a bit drabber, but my father had shirts just like Damon does in the film.) Affleck’s Phil Knight wears suits with sneakers because he’s caught between the two worlds, the respectable captain of industry who wants to run with everyone else. Then, there’s the music; Hollywood’s recent fascination with the 80s has resulted in some good songs in a lot of these nostalgic movies and shows, and Air has a plethora of recognizable hits, all used perfectly and purposefully in the film. Some of them are not what you’d think; I won’t dare spoil them, but you’ll know what I mean when you hear them.

Air is fantastic. It’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year (yeah, I know, stiff competition), and it’s something I look forward to revisiting. I hope Ben Affleck doesn’t stay away from the director’s chair for six more years, especially after this.

Air (2023)

Plot - 9
Acting - 10
Directing/Editing - 9
Music/Sound - 9
Themes - 10



Air is a fantastic look at a group of people who changed an industry, an American story of individuality and believing in yourself. Directed, edited, and acted exceptionally well, this will make you hungry for Affleck's next film.

Comments (2)

April 7, 2023 at 12:22 pm

I also really liked Ford V Ferrari. I was going to skip this movie, but because of your review, I might check it out. You are totally right in what you say about making reality fascinating. I also liked The Founder with Michael Keation, about Ray Kroc of McDonald’s. Great movie.
Nike was a glorious company at one time in terms of being total cut-throats in business. If you want to read a mind-blowing book, check out Win At All Costs by Matt Hart. It’s about the running teams and how Nike’s Bill Bowerman from Oregon running went to Japan and discovered Tigers and used them as a foundation to build more comfortable shoes for runners. Then, it goes into really dark territory about getting an edge. It truly was Ford v Ferrari in Book form. It was that competitive.

    April 7, 2023 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks, I’ll look that up.

    I think you’ll like Air. I saw the trailers and thought it looked good enough, but would probably be the least of the films Affleck directed, but I ended up loving it.

    I also really liked The Founder. Great performances down the line, and a sad look at how business happens in the real world, and what becomes of the noble when dealing with a snake.

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