‘Air’ Oscar? Why Ben Affleck’s Michael Jordan Sneaker Story Is 2023’s First Slam Dunk Awards Contender

As a director, Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a versatile, compelling talent, moving seamlessly from the morally complex “Gone Baby Gone” to the stark crime drama “The Town” to the tense and thrilling best picture winner “Argo.” Even Affleck’s one directorial misstep, the critically panned box office bomb “Live by Night,” has an intriguing gloss and conviction.

That’s why it’s so difficult for many viewers to answer: “Which Affleck-directed joint is your favorite?” Well, that decision may get even harder with the arrival of “Air,” Affleck’s latest feature which premiered as the Closing Night film at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month.

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“Air” tells the story of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a marketing executive for the athletic shoe and apparel supplier Nike, Inc., who seeks to strike a deal with rookie basketball player Michael Jordan during the 1980s. Anchored by Damon’s committed leading performance – his best since “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) – the film is an old-fashioned “Dad movie,” you know, the kind of straight-forward, absorbing yarns that used to pop up on TBS and TNT before becoming an endangered species in this Hollywood era. Nonetheless, with crisp direction and dynamite performances, it’s undoubtedly 2023’s first offering for one of the 10 coveted slots for best picture at next year’s Oscars.

Distributed by Amazon Studios, the sports drama is the most significant investment by the streaming giant for a theatrical release. It is set to open in more than 3,000 theaters beginning on April 5. Its main challenge is remaining part of the awards discussion over the next 10 to 12 months.

People love nothing more than the story of an underdog, which is why the sports genre has so often resonated with audiences and, at times, the Oscars. Depending on your definition of what qualifies as a “sports movie,” there have been 17 nominated for best picture in 95 years, with three winners: “Rocky” (1976), “Chariots of Fire” (1981) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).

Elements of “Air” will draw comparisons to Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” (2011), which mixed a look at the Oakland A’s 2002 season with a wonky look at the way Billy Beane embraced sophisticated sabermetrics as a way to get an edge on richer teams. In addition, Damon’s sharp and witty performance is reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s Oscar-nominated turn as Beane, inviting viewers into a movie who may not know much or care about basketball. He’s a sympathetic guide through the ins and outs of basketball stars and the shoe companies that help make them wealthy.

Well-respected in the Academy’s actors branch, as seen by his three career noms – “Good Will Hunting” (1997), “Invictus” (2009) and “The Martian” (2015) – Damon’s fourth nom could be in his future, especially with a final act monologue that will be meme’d and quoted by dude-bros for the next decade (creating an original screenplay contender out of first-timer Alex Convery). In addition to his acting recognition, he’s been nominated as a producer for “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) and won original screenplay for “Hunting” with his childhood friend Affleck.

Amazon Studios’ “Air”
Amazon Studios’ “Air”

An excellent selection for the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ best ensemble category, there are acting standouts that will appeal to varying spectators.

Fresh off her snub for “The Woman King” (2022), Viola Davis is sure to be among the potential candidates for best supporting actress for her turn as Deloris Jordan, the stoic and cheerleading mother of the greatest player of all time. Davis is already the most nominated Black actress in Academy Awards history with four nods, including a win for “Fences” (2016), and could extend her record-breaking run further.

In addition to his stunning direction, Affleck hams it up with his portrayal of Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight. Affleck steals scenes sporting a curly wig, gnarly sunglasses and a pink jogging suit that will make Halloween even more entertaining (from Black costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones, who will hopefully follow in Ruth E. Carter’s Oscar-winning footsteps).

It’s rare for a filmmaker to direct themself to an acting nod. That was last achieved by Bradley Cooper for “A Star is Born” (2018) and happened twice for Clint Eastwood, who was honored for “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby.” Interestingly, no one has ever pulled that off in a supporting acting category, which would be the route for Affleck (filmmakers like John Huston and Erich von Stroheim were nominated for supporting turns, but in films directed by others). Nevertheless, he may have better chances to seek his overdue director’s nomination after being snubbed for “Argo.” Instead, he won his second career statuette as a co-producer alongside George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The rest of the cast delivers impressive moments, including Jason Bateman as Nike employee Rob Strasser, Julius Tennon as James, Michael Jordan’s father who was murdered in 1993 and Chris Tucker as Howard White, the spiritually charismatic vice president of talent. Moreover, my favorite is the underutilized Chris Messina as sports agent David Falk, offering up a Long Island version of Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire, who never ceases to bring a smile to your face.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 18: (L-R) Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Alex Convery, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Chris Messina, Jason Bateman, attend the "AIR" world premiere during the 2023 SXSW Conference and Festivals at The Paramount Theater on March 18, 2023 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for SXSW)
Matt Damon, left, Ben Affleck, Alex Convery, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Chris Messina and Jason Bateman attend the “Air” world premiere at SXSW.

Affleck assembles an incredible artisan team, notably editor William Goldenberg, creating a breezy 112-minute experience. In addition, D.P. Robert Richardson delivers a framework that makes the viewer say, “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

After “Everything Everywhere All at Once” screened at SXSW in 2022 and won best picture at the 94th ceremony, casual post-mortems interpreted the sci-fi comedy’s history-making moment as the signal that “anything is possible” for the Oscars. While somewhat true, I have found that in this new era of streamers, social media, and vigorous campaigning, the release date is no longer the driving factor of Oscar success.

If the movie nabs decent box office receipts, it could be one of the few times where consumer and critical acclaim cross over in the awards race, just as they did with last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“Air” could fly just as high.

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