Matt Damon (The Last Duel) and Ben Affleck (Argo) are Oscar-winning screenwriters for their work on Good Will Hunting, so they have a strong sense of how to make a successful movie. Yet, before starting work on their latest project, Air, Damon and Affleck knew that to make a movie about Michael Jordan, they needed to speak with “His Airness.”
“The first step was getting the blessing of Michael Jordan,” Damon said at the global press conference for Air. “Before we got too excited, Ben said, ‘We should go see him.'”
Directed by Affleck and written by Alex Convery, Air pits Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, an ambitious Nike salesman who believes Jordan will change basketball and should be the face of Nike. In 1984, Nike dominated the running market, but basketball was its weakness as rival companies Converse and Adidas had all the best NBA players wearing their shoes. Vaccaro convinces Nike co-founder Phil Knight (Affleck) to devote all its resources to signing Jordan to wear its shoes, a gamble that eventually led to a billion-dollar empire.
Damon could not make the trip to see Jordan, but Affleck eventually met with the NBA Hall of Famer over lunch to discuss Air. Affleck wanted to center the film around Jordan and his game-changing partnership with Nike. During his conversation with Jordan, Affleck soon realized Jordan would not be the protagonist in this story. Furthermore, Jordan’s face is never seen in Air, and the actor standing in for Michael (Prom Night Flex’s Damian Young) mutters only a few words in the film. Air belongs to Jordan’s mother, Deloris, and her impact on Michael’s life.
“There was this moment where I saw awe, reverence, respect, adoration, and love when he talked about his mother. And it just shocked me,” Affleck said. “Shame on me for not kind of assuming this was the case, but when I heard it, I realized right away this was the story. And this was a beautiful story. It’s a story about Deloris Jordan and what she means to Michael.”
Jordan is associated with greatness, so the actress that would play his mother had to be just as great, if not better. When Affleck asked Jordan who should play his mother, MJ had one name in mind: Viola Davis.
“That’s like saying, ‘Can I get a basketball team together? Sure. It has to be Michael Jordan,'” Affleck said. “Then I thought, this is very typical of who this guy is. It has to be the very best. Absolutely. I knew it was incumbent on us to create a role that was worthy of Viola.”
Jordan received his wish when Davis (The Woman King) agreed to play Deloris, the intelligent, strong-willed matriarch of the family. The Oscar-winner was honored to receive admiration from Jordan, but Davis knew the role would be challenging because of Deloris’s stoic, calming presence.
“It is flattering because I do go in with a sense of ‘do I belong,’ imposter syndrome, so it’s nice to feel wanted. But then the next thought is now I gotta step in the role,” Davis said. “If you watch videos on Deloris Jordan, she is a study in Zen neutrality. The woman is very, very steady and quiet.”
Aside from Damon, Affleck, and Davis, Air stars Jason Bateman (Ozark) as Nike employee Rob Strasser; Marlon Wayans (The Curse of Bridge Hollow) as George Raveling, Jordan’s assistant coach on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team; Chris Messina (Gaslit) as Jordan’s agent, David Falk; Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) as Nike executive Howard White; Matthew Maher (Our Flag Means Death) as Nike designer Peter Moore; and Julius Tennon (How to Get Away with Murder) as Jordan’s father, James R. Jordan Sr.
Air premiered at South by Southwest to a positive reception from audiences and critics. Sports fans will appreciate the attention to detail with the basketball terminology and NBA Draft drama as Jordan’s deal with Nike became a seminal moment in pop culture. However, Air is not a typical sports movie. Basketball is the framing device, but the drama happens off the court, similar to sports movies like Jerry Maguire and Moneyball. Damon believes it’s a crowd-pleaser that will have “something for everyone.”
“I really do think there’s something for everyone in this one. It’s not a strictly sports movie. For the sports aficionados, they’ll love the kind of behind-the-curtain stuff that’s in here,” Damon said. “But I think it’s surprised a lot of the people who weren’t expecting it, it sneaks up on you because of the role that Viola plays and how she kind of takes over the movie. I do think there will be something for everybody.”
Amazon Studios’ Air opens exclusively in theaters globally on April 5.