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Film Review: ‘Air’ is a Modern Sports Movie Classic and A More Than Welcome Return to Directing for Ben Affleck

Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios

Sports movies can often center on athletes, sure, but some of the great ones (or sports-adjacent ones) never even focus on game being played. Just think of Jerry Maguire and Moneyball, for example. The characters and the drive to win a different kind of game fuel the narrative. Ben Affleck‘s return to directing, as well as his latest collaboration with Matt Damon, is of that ilk, and it truly stands tall with those other films. Air is an absolute triumph, supremely entertaining while also trafficking in emotion and ideas. It’s the full package and the cinematic equivalent of a franchise player. Nothing else so far this year can match the slam dunk (excuse the pun, but everyone will be doing it) that is Air. Affleck has been gone from behind the camera for too long. We’ve missed him.

Air is far more than just the best “dad movie” in years, or even just a sports flick. Utilizing the story of Nike pursuing a partnership with a rookie Michael Jordan, we get a testament to believing in yourself, believing in others, and standing for something. It takes real talent to invest you in the tale of a shoe salesman, the underdog aspect of an eventual billion dollar corporation, and the budding career of a legend you barely see, but Affleck and company pull it off in spades. It runs like clockwork and never ceases to be a delight.

Amazon Studios

In 1984, Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young, basically seen from behind here) wasn’t the legend he is now. Then, he was just a rookie hoping to go from the third overall pick in the NBA Draft to a great player. Some doubted him. One man who did not was Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), who wants the fledgling basketball division of Nike to invest everything in Jordan. Nike executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) wants to play it safe and focus their limited resources elsewhere, while Howard White (Chris Tucker) also thinks Sonny is on a fool’s errand. Sonny doesn’t find any more belief from Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), but their history allows him to disregard that. He has a gut feeling and he’s going to follow it.

Recruiting Jordan will take a special touch, as suggested by friend George Raveling (Marlon Wayans). With Jordan all but committed elsewhere to bigger shoe companies, Sonny will need to go around agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and sell the parents, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) and James Jordan (Julius Tennon). In particular, Deloris is the only hope of making this work. Slowly making a connection with her, Sonny starts out on this long shot and quixotic path. She knows her son’s worth more than anyone else on the planet, so it’s his job to make her understand that he’s a close second, without any games or nonsense. If he fails, Nike’s basketball shoe division could go under, or at the very least, he’ll be out of a job. If he succeeds, not only could the shoe world change, basketball could change as well. To say that would be the case is a massive understatement, but there’s genuine emotion and tension in how it all goes down.

Amazon Studios

This is an absolutely aces ensemble cast. Everyone is just keyed in to the material, having fun with their roles, and embracing teamwork of the movie that quite literally makes the dream work. Matt Damon is as good as ever playing the underdog everyman that is Sonny, while Viola Davis makes her small yet crucial part as Deloris absolutely soar. Her belief in and love for her son shines through, with tremendous results. Chris Messina is the comedy highlight (the phone calls between Falk and Vaccaro are a riot), with Chris Tucker not far behind. The deadpan nature of Jason Bateman is used to great effect, while this is the best we’ve seen from Marlon Wayans in some time. Ben Affleck himself is having a blast playing up the Buddhist and capitalistic duality of Knight, with often hilarious results. Supporting players include the aforementioned Julius Tennon and Damian Delano Young, as well as Asanté Deshon, Matthew Maher (great in a small but pivotal role), Jay Mohr, and more. Everybody more than pulls their weight, even if the bigger names up top will get the lion’s share of the credit.

Ben Affleck helmed films run like machines, with Air being no exception. Affleck’s direction, combined with the whip-smart script from Alex Convery, makes everything seem so easy. Convery’s screenplay is lively and full of great quotes, while never forgetting the emotionality of the characters at its core. Even when it’s funny, and it’s often very funny, it’s got even more heart up its sleeve. Affleck’s crisp visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson, evoke the time period, as does the banger after banger on the vintage soundtrack. The efficiency at play is not just evidence that Affleck is one of the best actors turned filmmakers out there, but that he’s quite simply one of the best directors in Hollywood today. If Live By Night is his one mixed bag directorial outing (if a still highly watchable one), Air stands tall with Argo, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town.

Amazon Studios

Awards-wise, Air has a chance to be the first real Oscar contender of the year. If it makes a few bucks at the box office and stays in the conversation through to the fall, watch out for some major potential love. Nominations in Best Picture, Best Director for Affleck, Best Actor for Damon, Best Supporting Actress for Davis, and Best Original Screenplay for Convery. Sleep on the Academy Award prospects of this one at your own prognosticating peril.

Air is far more than a riveting thesis statement for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s new company, Artist’s Equity. It is simply magnificent filmmaking, proof that we’ve missed Affleck directing, one of the great modern sports films, alongside sneakily being a great portrait of a mother believing in her son. I loved it, wholeheartedly. This stands out as the class of 2023, so far. Don’t you dare miss it!

SCORE: ★★★★


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Richard Green
Richard Green
1 month ago

Joey, what about below the line, for example do you think that William Goldenberg’s Editing has potentially a good chance of a nomination?

Robert Hamer
1 month ago

You know, it’s… it’s notable to me, how this is the second time in the last two years we’ve had a studio-backed American film centered on retired-but-still-living iconic black athletes’ early years that not only focuses a great deal on their parents as a major source of their success, but also highlights their attainment of financial power as specifically one of the inspirational markers of their personal “hero’s journey.”

Compare King Richard and Air to a movie like Chariots of Fire, where Eric Lidell’s family is positioned as antagonistic to his goal of winning Olympic gold for purely spiritual reasons. Or 61*, which portrayed fame and fortune as more of a burden on Roger Maris.



Written by Joey Magidson

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