The only problem facing Air is that people may be expecting a bigger movie, as one might assume given that the ostensible subject is basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Here’s the truth: although the story revolves around him, Jordan isn’t really in the picture, and there is almost no real-time basketball footage. Air is a modest, entertaining behind-the-scenes film about the marketing whiz (Matt Damon) who believed in Jordan when he was still a rookie and tried to convince his boss, Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to put his money and muscle to work crafting and promoting a shoe that bore his name.
Affleck knows a bit about underplaying, as he showed in directing Argo. He also has a lot of fun portraying the famously eccentric Knight. Even rumpled up, Damon is a past master at commanding the screen without letting us see him sweat. They make the most of first-time screenwriter Alex Convery’s screenplay, which manages to evoke suspense even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion. (As a guest in my USC class last week, Convery readily admitted that Affleck encouraged his actors to improvise and that, in many cases, they improved what he had written.)
And just as he did in real life, Michael Jordan had an ace up his sleeve: his wise, loving, protective mother. The athlete made casting Viola Davis a condition of signing off on this film, but in fact he did us all a favor. Davis effortlessly earns our respect and admiration as she quietly demands that her son be compensated for what he is worth—even if the terms are unprecedented.
Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlon Wayans, and Chris Messina add spice to the mix in key supporting roles, but it’s Damon, literally uncomfortable in his skin, and Davis, with only a handful of scenes, who score the most points in Air and make it worthwhile.