Air is a Slam Dunk
Starring Matt Damon and Viola Davis, Air is a triumph in the biographical film genre. The film tells the story of Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), a Nike executive trying to build up the struggling basketball division. He quickly sets his sights on Michael Jordan but knows that he has an uphill battle to even get a meeting with the rookie. Between going against his boss's wishes and the many arguments with Jordan’s agent, it feels like the deal is nearly impossible. While everyone knows how the story ends, the movie is able to build great tension and gives its audiences insight into what went down.
At its core, “Air” has a lot of heart. Vaccaro, in particular, continually expresses the belief he has in Jordan, despite him never even stepping foot on an NBA court. The first glimpse we see of this is when Vaccaro is going over the tape of Jordan’s game-winning shot against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Finals. He notices Jordan’s calm demeanor, despite being a freshman. He has the realization that from the start, the coaches and players around Jordan could see that he had a talent unlike any other they had seen before. Vaccaro begins to plead with Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Nike’s Director of Marketing, and Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), CEO and Co-founder, to let him use the whole basketball budget on Jordan. He continuously fights for Jordan, citing his impending stardom and sheer talent with a determination unlike others. Vaccaro knows that Jordan is going to be a star; he is just trying to make everyone around him understand that.
On the lighter side, the comedic portions of the film are laugh-out-loud hits. Lines like “Is this going to lead to some Buddhist aphorism I don’t want to hear?” and “That slogan came from a convict in front of a firing squad who was asked what his last words were. Just do it,” got hilarious reactions from the crowd. Alongside this were entire scenes of hilarity. In particular, the one where Vaccaro goes to North Carolina to talk to the Jordans about getting a meeting got great laughs. Vaccaro calls Rob to inform him that he is doing this without talking to the Jordans first (ill-advised, I might add), and Rob is distressed. Vaccaro tells Rob to let everyone know he is sick if they ask where he is. Rob immediately quips back, “You got it. Sick in the head.” These simple yet effective jokes help balance out the film's more dramatic and heartfelt scenes.
To top it off, Chris Messina’s portrayal of Jordan’s agent, David Falk, is comedy gold. Every other line that comes out of his mouth adds to the entertainment of the movie. Most of his screen time comes through phone calls with Vaccaro. These phone call scenes were shot in real-time as both the actors were down the hall from one another, shooting the scenes simultaneously. This isn’t typical of these kinds of scenes, but it makes the chemistry and the timing that much better. His shouting and vulgar language not only get laughs but also help the audience to understand what kind of person he is. Similar to the majority of the world at the time, Falk doesn’t see the star that he has at his fingertips. Instead, he is just another paycheck. This is where Falk falters, and Vaccaro succeeds.
Likewise, Deloris (Viola Davis), who is Jordan’s mother, sees the star that she has in her child. When Affleck went to get Jordan’s blessing to go ahead with the film, Jordan had some input. One thing he made clear was how integral his mother was to the story, and when he was asked who should play her, he said, “It has to be Viola Davis.” Just like his mother, Jordan knew that Davis was a star and would do the character right. She was certainly able to do just that. In particular, the pivotal phone call between Deloris and Vaccaro, where Jordan accepts Nike’s offer, is an absolute masterclass in acting. Both the delivery of the monologue and the facial movements Davis uses show more emotion than the majority of actors are capable of doing. Truly, throughout the entirety of the movie, Davis is a powerhouse.
Speaking of powerhouses, many left the film wondering where was Jordan. During the film, they never once show Jordan’s face. Instead, in scenes he is a part of, they frame it so he is never facing the camera, or his head is cut off. It struck many as odd as to why he was never really involved in the conversation. However, this intentional choice makes the film even better. Without Jordan, the story could pull focus from the superstar and put it on to Vaccaro and Deloris, who are the driving forces of the movie. It also helps to build up Jordan in the scenes he is in. Without seeing his face or hearing much about his opinions, it adds to his allure and makes him feel almost god-like to the viewers. Leaving the star out of the film makes him feel even more important to the story.
While many feared “Air” would fall flat as just another “inspired by a true story” movie, this was far from the case. The film's comedy, heart, and performances allow the story to reach heights far above and beyond what was expected. It reminds its viewers of the importance of belief, hard work, and determination and emphasizes that “a shoe is always just a shoe until someone steps into it.”
Writer: Olivia Madrid
Artist: Alyssa Giaccone