Mike at the Movies: “Air” Is the Best Film of the Year So Far


A bit of history first.

Before becoming a five-time NBA MVP, a six-time NBA champion and six-time Finals MVP with the Chicago Bulls, a two-time gold-medal champion at the Olympics, and the dreamiest member of the “Dream Team” that helped to make the NBA an international sensation, Michael Jordan was a skinny, but talented kid on the University of North Carolina basketball team who was overshadowed by an all-star player roster that had, finally, in 1982, put an NCAA championship ring on the storied career of legendary coach Dean Smith. 

Sure, Jordan (then a freshman) had hit “The Shot” – a feathery jumper from the left wing in the closing seconds of the game against favored Georgetown University – but he wasn’t talked about as much by “experts” as by some other players on that team. Of note were super-slick junior forward James Worthy, who subsequently jumped to the NBA to play alongside Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Los Angeles Lakers; and sophomore forward/center Sam Perkins, the “Plastic Man” whose wingspan was freakishly long. 

Both of those players averaged more points and rebounds than Mike Jordan (as he called himself then), and nobody was predicting that within a decade, Jordan would eclipse the accomplishments of such superstars as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius “Dr. J” Erving and thrust himself into consideration as the “GOAT”: the Greatest (Player) of All Time.

The year when Jordan, as a junior, announced for the NBA draft, his Tar Heels team – a prohibitive favorite to win Smith a second title – had been rather rudely eliminated from the tournament by Indiana early in the East Regional. 

Jordan’s prospects as an NBA player were bright, but no sure thing. He was considered a “top-five pick” alongside his teammate Perkins and a chubby Auburn forward named Charles Barkley who was dubbed “The Round Mound of Rebound,” but none of them were going to be drafted before the two superstar big men from that year’s class, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon from Houston and Sam Bowie from Kentucky. When Jordan’s name was called by the Chicago Bulls as the #3 selection, some pundits mused that the team would regret passing on Perkins, who went #4 to Dallas.

Matt Damon. Photo courtesy of Artists Equity.

Air: Courting a Legend (R for salty language) is a terrific telling – despite the clunky title – not of Jordan’s rise to basketball royalty on the court, but of the machinations behind the marketing that made him a brand name symbolized in a shoe. As such, this film starring Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina and Ben Affleck – and directed by Affleck from an original script by Alex Convery – has to rank as one of the most unusual and original “sports movies” ever made.

The central character here isn’t even a recognizable actor playing Jordan. In a handful of shots, we glimpse the back of a tall Black kid as he steps out of stretch limos in the company of Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, playing Jordan’s parents, Deloris and James, and we’re told in the closing credits that someone named Damian Delano Young actually performed that role. But this isn’t a story about some scrappy kid from North Carolina who defied the odds and made it big in the NBA. 

This is, instead, the story of a “scrappy” multibillion-dollar corporation (Nike) from Oregon that wanted to make it big in the basketball-shoe business by grabbing a share of a market dominated at the time by Converse and Adidas. Jordan happened to be the person whom Nike’s executives – especially Damon’s schlubby Sonny Vaccaro – settled upon as the prospect who was most likely to lead them to the promised land of even greater corporate profits. 

The problem they faced was signing him against competition that didn’t see Nike as a threat because it made running shoes, not basketball shoes, and who would want to wear a gaudy swoosh on their sneakers?

Affleck and his cast of talented performers do a great job of making us care about the corporate competition going on in the boardrooms at Nike, Converse and Adidas, especially as the suits in charge try to schmooze the Jordan family while dealing with Michael’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina in an award-worthy supporting performance). 

They get all the little details right: the petty rivalries that played out among people in the boardrooms (the exchanges between Damon and Jason Bateman as Nike VP Rob Strasser are some of the sharpest lines written in a movie this year), the back-biting among companies, the race to put together a proposal, the pressure of negotiating on the fly. Even though we know what will happen in the end, this race to sign Michael Jordan to a marketing deal that will make him a billionaire is as suspenseful as a thriller.

Credit Affleck the director, who uses some of the tricks he so expertly employed in his Oscar-winning film Argo, about the Iran hostage negotiation in 1980. Air is the best film of the year so far. If you can’t see it in a theater, wait a couple of weeks. This is an Amazon Studios production, so you know it will eventually be Prime viewing.