Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is a gambler. By night, at casinos; by day, as a marketing executive at Nike, where he’s worked as a basketball talent scout since 1977. When we first meet him in “Air,” Ben Affleck’s charming new piece of Nike propaganda, he’s convinced that he and the brand to which he’s been allegiant for nearly a decade need to take their biggest chance yet to guarantee their long-term survival. The Beaverton, Oregon-headquartered company is in the middle of a lukewarm period; when the film begins, in 1984, its basketball division has a paltry 17% market share and profits are in the kind of stalemate that’s resulted in 25% of its staff getting laid off. So when Vaccaro is tasked by the brand’s CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), with coming up with an innovative and hopefully brand-salvaging shoe-line pitch with a relatively meager $250,000 budget, Vaccaro does exactly that.
Only Vaccaro’s idea doesn’t hew very closely to what Knight had had in mind; it’s so risky that it makes him immediately mad that it’s even being suggested. (To Knight’s eye, the money ideally would be spread between a trio or so of spokespeople.) Seeing greatness in a young and lanky Michael Jordan (who’s never seen or heard from in “Air” for silly reasons), Vaccaro is convinced that Nike, then mostly known for its jogging gear, should blow the entirety of the $250,000 on Jordan. They should create a line that harnesses his escalating star power and in general shirk the practice of peers like Adidas and Converse simply putting star athletes in preexisting wares, giving him a brand within the brand that both celebrates his once-in-a-generation talent and lets wearers walk around “like Mike.”
You can see where this is going. “Air,” you’ve probably already heard, is a movie about how the Air Jordan line that now typically makes Nike $4 billion in revenue every year came to be. Mostly it unfolds in a series of sterile boardrooms, with a brief excursion to humid Wilmington, North Carolina, thrown in. (Vaccaro defiantly travels there in an attempt to win over Jordan’s parents, played by Julius Tennon and a rousingly steely Viola Davis, before they can meet with Converse and Adidas.) It’s an early centerpiece for a movie made up of a litany of dialogues that almost all are competitions where the winner walks out the door with the upper hand.
“Air” doesn’t feel stagey, nor does the dialogue come with the kind of David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin-esque stylization you wouldn’t be wrong to anticipate for a movie that’s majority conversations in offices. It’s surprisingly breezy. It wants to ultimately make you feel good, the happiest ending of all the raking in of billions.
“Air” reminded me, in a way, of underdog sports movies like “The Bad News Bears” (1976) or “Slap Shot” (1977), only the underdogs aren’t underestimated athletes who’ve had it up to here but men in suits who aren’t doing so bad for themselves but definitely could stand to do a lot better. “Air,” so admiring of Nike, almost deludes you into thinking of this corporation as humbler, more heroic, more inherently good than those other ones; then you realize that this is a corporation we’re talking about. (The most critical “Air” really gets comes from brief allusions to overseas labor and, courtesy of Jordan’s mother, the way Black athletes so often are used as a face to sell the products trotted out by companies run by white men without proper compensation. The movie, though, would of course you rather relish in joy when she ends up successfully — and historically — advocating for her son getting a cut of every single pair of Air Jordans sold in addition to his offer of $250,000 a year.)
Knowing where a story is going to end up often makes a movie feel frictionless — too comprehensively preordained to ever get us too caught up in what’s going on. But it gives “Air” a pleasing quality. Even though you know particularities are being fudged, made either dramatically broader or more conventionally triumphal to make this all into compelling entertainment, it’s fun to see how this seduction is all going to play out — how this fictionalized Vaccaro, whose unassuming exterior is obviously misleading, is going to not just get Jordan to forget about his steadfast Adidas fandom but also persuade his colleagues and those above him that he’s not being reckless at all. He’s a chosen one who must see a prophecy through. Vaccaro’s desperation is of the rare kind that stays flattering rather than ever off-putting.
Everything in “Air” stays at the surface. This is a movie that celebrates personalities — the bigger, the better — but pays nearly less than lip service to personal histories and inner lives. Superficial movies based on fact often get lambasted for being no more substantial than a Wikipedia page; “Air” would actually benefit from maybe stirring in a hodgepodge of “Personal Life” section details into the drama. (One character boasts about not having any friends; another, played by an excellent, sexily shaggy Jason Bateman, is locked into a painful custody agreement that makes the potential ruination of the company particularly scary to him.)
Damon doesn’t try to transform into Vaccaro, who was balding and spoke with a pronounced West Pennsylvania accent. (He does adopt his middle-aged pooch and gait.) “Air” figures that Damon’s oft-deployed affable-everyman shtick, which still functions pretty well on screen even though Damon seems to get better and better at undermining it off screen, will work well for what the movie is trying to accomplish, and proves itself right. He isn’t hard to root for. His unfussy work also nicely complements supporting actors given the leeway to be a little livelier, like Chris Messina as Jordan’s always cartoonishly-steaming-about-something agent, Affleck as a stressed-to-the-max executive who unwinds by keeping his feet naked and propped on his office desk, and Chris Tucker as Nike’s amiably chatty vice president.
Davis, who Jordan had insisted to Affleck play his “runs-sh*t” mother, is characteristically outstanding as the rare stage mother whose implacable belief in their kid isn’t marked by an unhealthy amount of delusion. I most of all liked Matthew Maher, so terrific in last year’s “Funny Pages,” as Nike’s creative director Peter Moore, whose vaguely unsettling (but more than anything aslantly funny) shoe-savant routine makes his performance feel the least synthetic and most edgily unpredictable of everybody’s. “Air,” soundtracked with a Spotify-friendly collection of ‘80s hits, is itself pretty synthetic — easy to digest and have a good time with. But it works over you like it’s supposed to. It’s a successful pitch of a movie about a successful pitch.
“HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE” OPENS WITH an octet of young people from disparate backgrounds convening in a West Texas shack, bonded by a common cause. (They include Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Marcus Scribner, and Lukas Gage.) Most of them directly traumatized by the deadly effects of the climate crisis — one person’s mother died during a heat wave, one character has been diagnosed with late-stage leukemia likely spurred by the severe pollution they grew up with — they plan to blow up a major oil pipeline as both what they’re calling an act of self-defense and a way to underscore the industry’s vulnerability to the masses.
The film, adapted from Andreas Malm’s 2021 novel by Jordan Sjol, Daniel Goldhaber, and Ariela Barer (who also plays one of the leads), unfolds as a terse, sometimes unbearably stressful thriller charting the 24 hours or so leading up to the climactic act; it doubles as a smart and tantalizing, though never didactic or conclusive, thought exercise considering this group’s plans with refreshing seriousness, cutting away intermittently into flashbacks giving some insight into what’s led everyone here. I still wanted to get to know everybody — this is a movie so plot- and idea-forward that it comes at the expense of very deep characterizations — just as well as I knew what they stood for.
Movie Love is 425’s film column. For more movie recommendations from Blake Peterson, subscribe to his newsletter.