“Air” is the origin story of a shoe, and not just any shoe. Director (and Boston’s own) Ben Affleck’s latest tells the tale of the Nike Air Jordan, so named for number 23 on the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan. Affleck and his screenwriter, Alex Convery, wisely divert focus from Jordan himself — he is never fully seen on camera and has one word of dialogue — because he was a rookie who had yet to step foot onto an NBA court.
Instead, “Air,” which opens in theaters Wednesday, is all about how that deal fell into place, a deal secured by Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis).
According to Affleck, when he asked Michael Jordan who should play his mother, Jordan told him “it has to be Viola Davis.” At the time, Deloris Jordan had two lines in the screenplay. In the finished product, Davis has a beefy role that stands out in a crowded cast of actors doing great work. Her entrance is preceded by a scene featuring Jordan’s father, James (Julius Tennon, Davis’s real-life husband). Tennon smiles at the camera, as if he can’t wait for us to see just how Davis rules every scene she’s in.
Most of Davis’s performance is opposite the film’s lead, Matt Damon. Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike talent scout whose job is to find sports figures to promote the company’s fledgling basketball shoe business. It’s 1984, and Converse rules the market while Adidas is in second place. Practically every famous basketball player from Dr. J to Magic Johnson wore and promoted Converse; Adidas has the best shot at getting Jordan, as he prefers their sneakers.
The film portrays Vaccaro as a risk-taking Vegas gambler who bets his job and reputation on newcomer Jordan being the key to unseating Converse. Think of Damon’s role as a modern-day Jerry Maguire. And Davis is his personal Rod Tidwell; she doesn’t literally say “show me the money” like Cuba Gooding Jr. did in that Oscar-winning role, but Deloris Jordan damn sure means it. The emotional arc of “Air” details what a mother will do to look out for the son she knows is destined for greatness.
It’s Howard White (Chris Tucker) who gives Vaccaro the idea to reach out to Deloris. He says his success with recruitment is to “go through the mama.” A little Chris Tucker goes a long way, and “Air” uses just enough of him to make his role memorable. Tucker plows through his scenes with his trademark mania, and Affleck reins him in just when it feels he may go overboard.
But even before Vaccaro can take a meeting with the Jordans, he has to convince his boss to approve the funds to make the offer. The director of “Air” gives himself the plum role of Nike’s then-CEO Phil Knight. Adorned with yet another messed-up wig (with this film, Ben has now wrested the mantle of “WTF hairdos” from Sam Jackson), Affleck gives a hilarious performance. Though he’s gone from selling shoes out of the trunk of his car to owner of a multimillion-dollar company, Knight still prides himself on being a hippie type who spouts Buddhist wisdom and roams his office barefoot.
The charismatic interplay between best buds Damon and Affleck allows “Air” to gently rib Knight without letting us forget he’s still in charge. Under Affleck’s unobtrusive direction, Damon gives one of the best performances of his career, especially in the climactic scene where he lays all his cards on the bargaining table.
In fact, the entire cast does some of their best work. Almost everyone gets a chance to stand out in scenes opposite Damon. Jason Bateman’s marketing guy, Rob Strasser, gets a great monologue where he tells Vaccaro just how much he has to lose if the Jordan deal falls through. As Air Jordan’s designer, Peter Moore, Matthew Maher conveys an infectious love for sneaker building, one that makes the product’s reveal late in the film feel as if we’d never seen this shoe before.
And Marlon Wayans is fantastic as college basketball coach George Raveling. A little of Wayans goes a long way, too; he gets just enough screen time to advise Vaccaro by recounting the major event that changed his life, an event I’ll not spoil.
I should mention that, for all its dramatic rigamarole about sneakers, players, and deals, “Air” is technically a comedy. Many of the laughs come from Chris Messina’s incredibly foul-mouthed performance as Michael Jordan’s agent, David Falk. A phone call between him and Damon elicited uncontrollable laughter from the audience at my screening. “Air” also takes some playful comic swipes at the corporate dealings of Converse and Adidas.
As a star-studded (and highly fictionalized) history lesson, “Air” is massively entertaining and one of the best films of 2023 so far. It also works as a nostalgia piece for people like me who, in their youth, lusted after the pricey footwear. Sitting in the theater, I remembered my first pair of Jordans, which I’d bought with money I’d made working at a fast-food joint named after a singing cowboy.
I also remembered the two guys in my old neighborhood who tried to jack me for my Jordans. Addressing the perils of a sneaker becoming a massive symbol of status for inner-city kids like me is out of the scope of this film, but it is worthy of mention here. The commercial that taunted us with the jingle that expressed our hopes to “be like Mike” plays during the closing credits of “Air.”
By the way, I outran my would-be muggers. I don’t know why I got lucky that day. As Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon used to say in those Nike ads, “it’s gotta be the shoes.”
Directed by Ben Affleck. Written by Alex Convery. Starring Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina, Marlon Wayans, Matthew Maher, Julius Tennon, Ben Affleck. 112 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, and suburbs. R (Nike isn’t the only four-letter word uttered)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.