Like Tetris before it, Air, a movie about shoes, has no right to be as good as it is. But Air is good, the kind of old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that stars grown-ass characters doing grown-ass things like taking calls and making calls and watching the tape and inventing the most beautiful sneaker in history. 


Written by Alex Convery and directed by Ben Affleck and based on nothing except a pair of shoes, Air tells the story of how a bunch of schlubby and/or weird white guys convinced Michael Jordan, the burgeoning basketball superstar, to sign a groundbreaking deal with Nike and thus, bring Air Jordans to the world. Air is not about Michael Jordan: The Person, it is about Michael Jordan: The Idea (in the same way The Last Dance is about Michael Jordan: Petty King), and to a lesser extent, it is also about the sacrifices people make to be great. Not Michael Jordan’s sacrifices, no, the sacrifices of the real heroes: the rich white guys who sold the shoes.

I’m being facetious, but it IS weird how Air tells a story about Air Jordans almost entirely centered on white people. It’s 1984 and Nike, while a successful company known for their top-tier running shoes, is getting crushed in the basketball market. Basketball is not yet the major sport it is today, but Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a schlub with no life and an unaddressed gambling problem, knows there is potential for basketball to break out, the sport just needs that one marquee star to bring in a new audience, and he knows a young guy from North Carolina named Michael Jordan has the potential to be that star. 


But as Howard White (Chris Tucker), boss of the basketball division, explains to Sonny, Nike just isn’t cool. Kids don’t care about Olympians like they used to, they care about the hip-hop stars coming out of New York, and those hip-hop stars wear Adidas track suits. Sonny, who has never heard of Run DMC, eventually wraps his head around the problem of the cool factor, and decides Nike needs to go all in on Michael Jordan, recently signed to the Chicago Bulls. Jordan is great, Sonny knows it, and Americans love greatness. Everyone wants to be great, even just by association, which makes him an ideal spokesperson. The problem is, MJ hates Nike. He’s on the record saying he’ll never sign with Nike, so now Sonny has to convince Jordan to sign a deal with a company he disdains.

It's amazing how much dramatic mileage Air derives from this. On the advice of Howard White, who tells Sonny that Jordan’s mom, Deloris, runs the show in their family, and against the strict instructions of Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, having an absolute ball with Falk’s profane dialogue), Sonny goes to see the Jordans in North Carolina. Viola Davis is fantastic, as usual, as Deloris Jordan, and Julius Tennon is charming and chill as James R. Jordan, Sr. James is content to sit back and watch Sonny kick at the anti-Nike wall MJ built, but Deloris knows her son is a once in a lifetime talent, and she is determined to see him get the best deal possible, regardless of brand name. The smartest thing Air does is make the climactic moment of the film Deloris negotiating the deal, the dialogue delivered with stern conviction by Davis.


Air is essentially just people standing around rooms having conversations, and stakes are incredibly low—we know the deal happens going in—but there are still thrilling dramatic moments. One comes when Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Nike’s marketing guru, talks about the time he’s missing with his daughter in order to stay at the office all weekend and design the shoe. Bateman is the MVP of Air, giving the film real, human consequences. Another is the reveal of the Air Jordan itself. One prototype is produced, and damn, those OG Jordans ARE the best-looking sneaker ever made. On paper, it’s a stupid moment, a bunch of people gathered around to pull the cover off a shoe like it’s the David, but Affleck builds to the moment perfectly, and by that point in the story, the shoe is so much more than a shoe—it’s greatness and cool and Deloris Jordan’s intention and Rob Strasser’s missed time and Sonny Vaccaro’s hope. Everyone in the film has assigned unique meaning to the shoe, and everyone delivers on the big moment, infusing that fateful meeting with a sense of real history being made. Because in all actual fact: it was.


Air is a love letter to a lot of things—Nike, Air Jordans, Michael Jordan, Deloris Jordan particularly and mothers generally, basketball, the 1980s, Ben Affleck playing rich weirdoes in films (he’s great as Nike CEO Phil Knight), schlubby white guys profiting off the excellence of Black people, nostalgia. But it’s mostly just a supremely entertaining film about a moment that seemed significant to no more than a dozen people at the time but ended up massively shifting The Culture at large. We used to get this kind of broadly appealing, feel-good film all the time, now it feels as rare as a pair of mint Jordan 1s. We have to enjoy these grown-ass movies when we get them, just like a pair of limited edition Jordans.

Air is exclusively in theaters from April 5, 2023.