Air, Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ Wills Itself to Victory

Ben Affleck’s likeable and engaging Air walks a fine line between success and defeat. It’s a fitting culmination of the director’s exploration of drama and its sub-genres.

Ben Affleck
5 April 2023

“We’re on offense. All the time.” 

“Perfect results count – not a perfect process. Break the rules: fight the law.” 

These are the second and third Nike company principles. Written by Marketing Executive Rob Strasser in a 1977 memo, they helped American entrepreneur Phil Knight build his multinational corporation. 

Nike’s swoosh emblem is said to have been inspired by the Greek God Nike’s wings, representing victory. She’s said to have fought alongside Zeus in the Titanomachy – a series of battles between the Titans and the Olympians. The myth sets the older Gods against the young pretenders: Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Athena, and Apollo. It’s fitting that Nike, valued in excess of $30 billion, borrowed from or looked to ancient mythology for inspiration in creating its own legacy. In the contemporary capitalist-driven world, money and commerce are the new religion. 

Indeed, the appropriation of the Goddess Nike symbolizes this transference of power. Unlike the Olympians, who had to go to war for dominion over the world of men, Knight had to compete with Adidas, Converse, and other companies, but these contests are not typically the stuff literature is made of. Principle number six, however, is: “This is as much about battle as about business.”

Director Ben Affleck’s Air is the story of a chapter in the company’s history – the battle that led to the birth of the “Air Jordan” brand. Affleck plays Knight, but the figure front and centre is John Paul Vincent “Sonny” Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, the director’s longtime friend and screenwriting collaborator. 

The year is 1984, and Nike plays third fiddle to Converse and Adidas in the pro basketball shoe market. With year after year of low sales, Knight warns Sonny that the basketball division is at risk. In response, Sonny leads the audacious pursuit to break from the plan of signing three or four players in the 1984 NBA Draft to sign only one instead: Michael Jordan. 

Unperturbed by Michael’s outspoken preference to sign with Adidas, Sonny goes on the offence, breaking the rules to sign the player he believes will be an NBA legend. Ironically, he winds up pissing off Knight and Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina). Together with Strasser (Jason Bateman), executive Howard H. White (Chris Tucker), and shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), they conceived the unique shoe: “Air Jordan”.

Affleck’s feature debut, the 2007 crime thriller Gone Baby Gone , announced him as a serious directorial talent, building on Gus Van Sant’s 1997 drama, Good Will Hunting, which he co-wrote with Damon. Air, written by Alex Convery, shows Affleck’s nuanced interest. The Boston set crime thrillers Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town – the latter leaning into dramatic heist set-pieces – and 2012’s Argo, written by Chris Terrio, Tony Mendez and Joshuah Bearman, mixed drama with suspense, evolving into a thriller. Affleck returned to crime more recently with the Florida-set gangster 2016 film, Live By Night.

Air shares more of a kinship with Argo. Being the only other film Affleck hasn’t written, is it coincidental? Both are dramas, and while Air doesn’t build to the nail-biting finalé that Argo does, it’s not void of dramatic suspense. Firmly a drama, Air is a fitting culmination of the director’s exploration, in some detail, of drama and its sub-genres. 

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for process and detail-orientated films, where we watch the characters work, problem-solving and piecing together what they’re trying to understand or expose. Air applies this storytelling method. How did Sonny’s gutsy instinct to sign Michael Jordan unfold and launch one of the world’s most lucrative brands?

The cast brings energy to their characters. First and foremost, Air is a light, breezy, entertaining film. Convery’s writing and the performances are reminiscent of the hyper-chatter that Aaron Sorkin is renowned for. Here, Convery’s approach is more sober than a distilled Sorkin drama. Audiences lukewarm to conversational cinema will struggle to discover Air‘s vivacious charm. 

The characters like to talk – and talk they do. Affleck, however, appreciates the value of those quieter moments. The excellent Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother, is a calming presence, acting with and choosing her words with deliberate intent. The director astutely allows for a brief respite of silence when the opportunity arises, where a glance or the character’s body language can say more than words.

The likeable and engaging Air walks a fine line between success and defeat. Only late in the story does it stop asking for our respect and instead demands it. When Sonny sees the meeting with the Jordan family faltering, he delivers an unexpectedly powerful speech. It’s a moment that recalls Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) famous Kodak sales pitch in Mad Men.

Sonny tells Michael that his story is an American story, that we build people up only to tear them down, and the tough part is not climbing up the mountain, it’s climbing back down. He tells Michael it’s about how we respond, echoing Strasser’s earlier reference in a strategy meeting to Rocky Balboa – “… It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward…” 

Not only does Air find its confidence, but Sonny appears to dig down and find something in himself. He could match anyone in a verbal duel. He’s in embroiled in many that have the audience listening intently. In this moment, however, we see a transcendent Sonny. The moment is enhanced by Affleck and his editor, William Goldenberg, who synchronise Sonny’s words with archival news footage from the story timeline’s future – the highs and lows of Jordan’s professional and personal life. 

There are likely more interesting stories in the Nike closet, given the personalities Air introduces us to. Could it have been developed as an episodic series instead of a feature? Strasser and Knight, and how they grew the company would lend itself to dramatic retelling, especially when principle number eight exposes an intriguing and admirable culture behind the Nike brand. It warns against bureaucracy, personal ambition, and energy takers vs. energy givers.

The point shouldn’t be overlooked that Air is a timely film, especially with college athletes now being allowed to profit from their brands, images and likeness. The deal Jordan signed in 1984 was seismic – for the first time, an athlete was given a share of the profit in all sales of the shoe. Nearly 30 years later, Sonny was instrumental in the O’Bannon v. NCAA Antitrust Class Action lawsuit victory, helping to reform student athlete scholarship rights.

At 111 minutes, Air is not a short film, but it feels lean. It knows what it needs to be and it doesn’t get sidetracked – focusing on the seed (Jordan) that grew into the flourishing Oak Tree (Air Jordan). The story of the brand beyond this point is not the story the filmmakers are interested in telling. Sonny reminds Michael that he was cut from his high school team at Laney, and has since willed himself to the NBA as the number three pick. Air is a highly entertaining and engaging story of how Nike willed themselves to relevancy in the basketball shoe market.