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Air Review: Matt Damon Soars In Compelling Sports Biopic

  • Great star performance from Matt Damon
  • Brisk, playful pacing
  • Sometimes borders on deifying Michael Jordan

We've done political biopics, we've done musical biopics, and we've certainly done royal biopics. But what's increasingly clear is that we're currently in a moment of business biopics, where otherwise anonymous corporate figures are the heroes of the brands they brought to life. Bleak? Well, maybe. But just as with any other biopic, there's an art to getting it just right. 

As absurd as it might seem to frame an entire film around the guy who convinced Michael Jordan to sign with Nike — a watershed moment for the shoe industry, to be sure, but not exactly the sort of sweeping cinematic epic that studios dream of — "Air" actually works. It's written and directed with a light touch, comfortably creating genuine stakes out of what is undeniably small-scale drama. Appearing in a role similar to that of "Ford vs. Ferrari," Matt Damon again proves his star quality, grounding "Air" as a surprisingly enjoyable dramedy.

The Nike problem

Nowadays, Nike is the first and last name in athletic shoewear — it's hard to imagine a time when its now iconic swoosh symbol wasn't everywhere in the sports industry. But back in the early 1980s, they were a struggling company, perpetually coming in last place behind Adidas and Converse. That's where we meet Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), one of the key players in the fledgling basketball department at Nike, brought on board to scout talent who might be persuaded to sign an endorsement deal. Problem number one: Nike doesn't exactly have the budget to attract top talent, and many of the players about to join the NBA are scooped up by lucrative deals from other companies. Problem number two: Nike has something of an image issue. They're seen as the producers of running shoes, and young basketball players view their products as supremely uncool.

While Nike's basketball division makes plans to do the same thing they've done in years past — sign a few talented but uninspiring players among the top 20 recruits about to join the NBA — Sonny has a different idea. A consummate gambler (indeed, our introduction to the character takes place in a casino), he wants to put all of Nike's chips on one man: Michael Jordan, one of the top draft picks and a player who has made it clear he has absolutely no interest in signing with Nike. It seems to be an insurmountable challenge, but that's never stopped Sonny before.

The actors are having a blast

Matt Damon is clearly having the time of his life, injecting an infectious, almost giddy, sense of humor into his performance as Sonny. This cuts some of the more saccharine elements of his character, who does tend to wax poetically, even reverently, about Michael Jordan for large swathes of the film. Ben Affleck, too, is perfectly in his element. Seeing him in roles like this is a delight, where he has permission to be the butt of the joke, poking fun at what can occasionally come across as a self-serious quality to his acting. It makes you realize how many years he was ill-used playing bland leading men when he's so clearly meant to be a goofy side character who steals the show. 

Viola Davis brings intensity and intelligence to the role of Deloris Jordan, who is both a savvy businesswoman and a fierce believer in her son's abilities. The dynamic between Deloris and Sonny is responsible for some of the film's best moments, as two characters who respect one another and have a shared faith in Michael Jordan's promise work from opposite ends towards a common goal.

Michael Jordan's legacy

It feels unbelievable that "Air" could make an entire movie out of what is essentially one historical business deal. It's not exactly the most cinematic storyline we've ever heard of. But because this is a biopic filled with real-life figures who no one actually knows, "Air" has the freedom to play with the narrative a little bit. Its actors aren't beholden to doing an impression of anyone, and as a result, can bring their natural charm and personality to the roles. The film, in fact, takes the one super-recognizable person in its lineup and stubbornly refuses to show them – we see Damian Young as the teenage Michael Jordan on screen, but only briefly and without lingering on his face. Instead, the glimpses we get of the star are limited to archival footage, which preserves the larger-than-life persona of the sports icon.

If "Air" is occasionally guilty of being too reverential to Michael Jordan or in awe of his genius, it's a flaw that's easy to forgive. Matt Damon may deliver three or four lengthy speeches praising the basketball star, but there are also large swathes of the film that are much more focused on the internal mechanics of the athletic endorsement world. It's breezy and well-paced, with strong, playful performances from its lead cast, and although it has fun with its subject matter, its humor never crosses into Adam McKay's "based on a true story" territory. Consistently light on its feet, Ben Affleck's "Air" offers a charming new take on the corporate biopic.

"Air" hits theaters on Wednesday, April 5.