‘Air’: Viola Davis Is the MVP of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Air Jordan Tale
A wise man once asked: “Is it the shoes?” The question has plagued generations of sneaker fanatics, amateur ballers, and would-be Hall-of-Famers, all of whom would give their right rotator cuff to be Just. Like. Mike.
Thankfully, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Air has provided an answer. It pops out of the mouth of a man the latter is playing, John “Sonny” Vaccaro, a marketing executive at Nike who was trying to get the company a foothold in the basketball world. Converse and Adidas have long dominated the game, and nobody in the NBA was dying to sport the swoosh when they hit the court. He wanted to change that. In real life, Vaccaro looked like the guy who’d serve you a slice at a Flatbush pizzeria. Onscreen, however, he simply resembles Jason Bourne after a year-long bender. Welcome to the magic of the movies.
Vaccaro — the Matt Damon version — is talking to the mother of a player he has his eye on. Her son has already made a name for himself in North Carolina, when his stunning, last-minute jumper as a freshman won UNC the NCAA championship. He’d been picked third in the draft by the Chicago Bulls, but people still weren’t sure of what he was capable of. Vaccaro knows, though. He’s watched the clip of the 19-year-old sinking that shot like it was the Zapruder footage and wants to sign the young man. Mom is wary. And then, as if by providence, Vaccaro utters an impromptu Zen koan: “A shoe is always just a shoe until someone steps in it.”
This is what the Affleck-directed, Damon-starring movie wants you to think it’s about. But a more accurate (if far less philosophical) sentence might be, “A shoe is always just a shoe until someone properly markets it.” Air is an all-star footwear biopic that exists in the space firmly between those irreverent Air Jordan ads starring Spike Lee’s b-boy alter ego, and the near-religious reverence that billions of basketball fans have for one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. It’s a freewheeling, feel-good story of how a failing company bet big and won even bigger, while also being a dead-serious burnishing of a mythology that united two corporate entities and gave birth to a subculture. Never mind that its main takeaway is that a shoe is never just a shoe — it’s also a branding exercise, an icon-making commodity, a bottom-line savior, a symbol, a statement, a work of art. That line of dialogue is still as aspirational as Jordan himself. This is a movie allegedly about a GOAT but really about the underdogs who pulled off an at-the-buzzer victory by getting the GOAT. Call it Good Nike Hunting.
Rewind back to 1984, a year that’s unforgettable — mainly because Air and its creators won’t let you forget that the story takes place in 1984, thanks to its endless montages of timeline markers (Band Aid! That Orwellian Apple ad! “Where’s the beef?”) and a K-Tel–level soundtrack. (The end-credits list of songs is perilously close to this.) Nike is still primarily known for making running shoes, and little else. It’s hippie-to-yuppie founder, Phil Knight (Affleck), wants to run with the big dogs but continues to prop his bare feet up on his desk during meetings because, y’know, fuck the establishment, etc. The basketball-focused salesmen who report to Director of Marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) are throwing bricks. Only Vaccaro shows any initiative, yet the fact that he eats and sleeps the game has not translated into profits for the division. Knight’s getting impatient. Strasser’s stressed. Sonny needs an assist ASAP.
Except there’s this rookie, see, and Vaccaro is so convinced he’s the second coming of Magic Johnson that he’s willing to spend his entire budget on designing a sneaker not for this kid, but around him. His friend, Olympic coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), suggests it’s too much of a long shot. Strasser and a fellow Nike executive, Howard White (Chris Tucker), think their coworker is being too reckless. The player’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), wants Sonny to leave his client and his client’s family alone. Vaccaro shows up at the Jordans’ doorstep anyway, which is when Air decides to unveil its real secret weapon.
Up until now, we’ve watched Damon give this true believer a sense of white-hot fervor, Affleck make the most of his kooky extended cameo, Tucker play against type and provide the voice of reason, Messina turn his power broker into the human equivalent of a high-volume fuck you, and Bateman do his patented snarky so-hey-guys Bateman thing. It’s all been good, or at least good enough; the Argo director has a breezier touch than usual, though he’s relying heavily on goosing the stranger-than-fiction aspects and the steady stream of irony pouring out of Alex Convery’s script.
Then in walks Viola Davis, and you can almost feel the air in the scene — and in the theater you’re sitting in — change. No one needs to be convinced that she’s one of our finest working actors, certainly not her costars nor the man behind the camera calling the shots. You can almost feel the admiration radiating from her fellow performers even when they’re in character, the same sort of awe that the shoe-designing grunts and sneaker pimps have for Michael when he enters a room. (We never see the Great One’s face, by the way — just his back, his side, a sense of his stature as he glides through a conference room or sits at the end of a table. It’s an inspired move on Affleck’s part.)
Davis is Deloris Jordan, a.k.a. Michael’s mom, a.k.a. the one identified to Vaccaro early on as the real power behind the throne. Their first exchange takes place at the Jordans’ home, with Sonny pitching and Deloris sizing him up. The art of listening onscreen is one of Davis’s superpowers, and she expertly deploys it; you can see her taking in everything this salesman says as he praises her MVP-in-training, preparing counterpoints in her head, watch her thought process shift in real time. The passionate intensity of Damon’s full-court press is matched by Davis’s maternal defensiveness. Mrs. Jordan admires this exec’s belief in her baby boy, the chance he’s taking, and his ability to predict how the competition will try to woo Michael. But she also knows this man is the latest person to try and get a piece of what will become a legendary career, and that he won’t be the last.
It’s these two characters — the irresistible force in creased khakis, and the immovable object in her Sunday best — that give Air its momentum, more than the scenes of Knight clumsily throwing around his power, or the bumbling Damon-Bateman double act, or even the Eureka! moment when these corporate grunts discover the shoe that will change the universe. The movie gifts Davis (and us) with a third-act speech that finds Deloris asking for one final concession from the company as a caveat to signing, and it’s Exhibit A as to why you hire this Oscar-winning actor for a role like this. It has greatest-hits reel and here-are-the-nominees clip embedded in its DNA.
The Bulls benefited from having someone of Jordan’s caliber on their team yet were often eclipsed by him, residing in the shadow of his talent. The same can be said for Air, which coasts by on good will and a real-life success story piggybacking on another real-life success story, until Davis shows up and turns it into something deeper. She’s the movie’s Jordan, the one going hard in the paint. What’s happening around her — an unlikely American Dream coming true, courtesy of two guys from Boston who, once upon a time, lived their own IRL American Dream in front of millions — plays out in the sort of audience-friendly fashion that makes it feel like Rocky for sneakerheads. Come for the uplift of an underdog sports story centered around the guys who made you realize a shoe isn’t just a shoe, superstar foot or not. Stay for the film that Davis gives you when, standing unguarded, she’s suddenly passed the ball, effortlessly rolls it off her fingertips, and gets nothing but net.