“Air” takes the form of an underdog sports movie and combines it with a muckraking thriller. It’s “Hoosiers” meets “All the President’s Men.” Instead of the basketball court, the movie takes place within the Nike headquarters—which was ranked in third place among the major athletic shoe companies at the time. Enter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a basketball guru that Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) has recruited to head their newly launched NBA endorsement line to face their competitors. Like “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper, Sonny understands that a great marketing idea is nothing unless there’s a dream behind it. Sonny, a gambler, is willing to bet his career and the marketing department’s entire budget ($250,000) on one player: a 21-year-old, No. 3 draft pick named Michael Jordan. Everyone agrees Jordan will be a star, but Sonny sees something else. He’s the future.
Two elements propel the ticking-clock suspense nature of the story. One, of course, is Jordan—who is never shown except through highlight clips and clever blocking in key sequences. The movie knows that the audience knows that Jordan would go on to become the GOAT. To pretend otherwise would be a form of false advertising.
The other unifying element in the movie is its soundtrack. Like Martin Scorsese or Jonathan Demme, Affleck (working with music supervisor Andrea von Foerster) uses music as mood enhancers or signals for dramatic transitions. And unlike someone like Quentin Tarantino, Affleck doesn’t use music as an ironic counterpoint to violence. His sense of irony is more playful and humorous. For example, a montage of Sonny blowing off some steam in Vegas is set to the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” The jaunty, buskin rhythms remind us that this was the moment when “alternative” music was becoming mainstream.
Affleck doesn’t ladle the oldies over the images as emotional shorthand. Instead, his song selections are designed to get an immediate emotional response from the viewer. When Sonny decides to break protocol and impulsively goes to Wilmington, NC, to cold call on the Jordans, we see him speeding down a highway in his rental car. The moment is scored to the joyous “In a Big Country.” The song’s chorus of “In a big country, dreams stay with you” endorses Sonny’s rule-breaking gesture. Similarly, when Sonny makes an impromptu trip to Los Angeles, the moment is given dramatic force when we hear the revved-up guitar riff of ZZ Top’s salacious “Legs.” Affleck, who has lived most of his professional life in LA, understands that sleaze and glamor are a continuous mix. (In “Argo,” a transition to Hollywood is shown by a close-up of the Hollywood sign accompanied by the opening guitar riff to The Rolling Stones’ raunch classic “Little T&A.”)