Sunday, May 26, 2024

When it’s hard to imagine humble beginnings for corporate giants, origin stories reframe, refocus and provide new context. Microsoft and Apple started out of garages, right? Nike, the now-mega sports apparel conglomerate, took flight when founder and longtime chief executive Phil Knight started selling shoes out of the trunk of his car in the ’60s. The company became a leader in the track and running market in the ’70s, but as far as basketball went, it was a JV wannabe behind Converse and Adidas. The push to garner a greater market share is what “Air” is all about, and we all know who his royal Airiness is and how the story goes – but that union wasn’t as easy or even as probable as many might imagine, and that is where this film, directed by Ben Affleck and sharply written by Alex Convery, finds its sweet spot.

The lens falls on portly basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who’s given a quarter-million dollars by Knight (played with shaggy-dog gusto by Affleck) to sign an NBA draftee and help the company move up in market share. The problem is that Converse and Adidas have millions at their disposal; Vaccaro and crew (a chatty, avuncular Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman, stealing every scene as a smug marketing maven) have to look past the cream of the crop – Charles Barkley, No. 1 pick Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie and Michael Jordon – to the next tier of John Stockton, Jeff Turner and Melvin Turpin (who, you might ask?) for a realistic signee that may, against steep odds, become a marquee player in the NBA and give Nike a brand blastoff. Instead of spreading the money around on a few late, first-round long shots, Vaccaro fixates on Jordan, proclaiming him a once-in-a-generation superstar. History shows he wasn’t wrong, but few at the time, including Knight and the Nike board, were willing to take a chance. Vaccaro persists, though, coloring outside the lines by bypassing Jordan’s agent (played with hilarious, foulmouthed vitriol by Chris Messina in a breakout role) and driving to North Carolina to connect with Jordan’s parents, James (a gentlemanly Julius Tennon) and Deloris (Oscar winner Viola Davis, bringing her A-game to the pivotal role).

Like the journalistic investigation that sussed out the evils of Harvey Weinstein in “She Said” (2022) – granted, the contexts are worlds apart – you never really see or hear the object of the film’s focus, though Jordan haunts nearly every frame. It’s good to see Damon and Affleck together again. They played together most recently in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” (2021) but most Boston-famously in “Good Will Hunting” (1997); this is the first time one Cambridge Rindge and Latin buddy gets to direct the other, and their casual familiarity deepens the scenes between old colleagues Vaccaro and Knight. Speaking of Rindge, there are some cheeky references to Mike Jarvis and that phenom from Jamaica, Patrick Ewing. Rounding out the ingeniously cast ensemble is Matthew Maher as Peter Moore (who passed away last year), the designer who came up with the iconic logo of Jordan hanging in the air, and Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, a college basketball coach and sounding board for Vaccaro.