Ben Affleck Explains Why Michael Jordan Is Barely in ‘Air’

Apr 5, 2023

Ben Affleck’s Air is about how Michael Jordan completely changed the game for Nike’s struggling basketball division, but Jordan is barely seen in the movie. While that might come as a surprise to some, it works. Exceptionally well, in fact.

In the 80s, Nike couldn’t compete with juggernauts Converse and Adidas when it came to basketball shoes. Converse had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and Adidas was attracting some of the biggest rising stars including Michael Jordan himself. In a last-ditch effort to keep the basketball division afloat at Nike, Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro opts to risk it all on one player; he wants to use all of their resources (and then some) to sign Jordan.
Given the fact that some referred to Air as “the Michael Jordan Nike movie” leading up to its release, it might come as a surprise that Jordan is rarely seen in the flesh in the film. Most of the negotiating happens between Vaccaro and Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan, played by Viola Davis. Air certainly emphasizes Michael’s genius in the sport, but it’s largely focused on how he changed the game of basketball before even joining the NBA. As Affleck notes in his director’s statement, “Air is not Michael Jordan’s story, but there is no story without him.”

Image via Amazon Studios

With that in mind, the camera is often on the film’s main ensemble including Damon, Davis, Affleck as Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight, Jason Bateman as Nike’s VP of Marketing, Chris Tucker as Sonny’s colleague and advisor, Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent, and Marlon Wayans as one of Jordan’s coaches at the 1984 Olympics. While we do get flashes of Michael Jordan himself, we never see him in full in the movie.

With Air hitting theaters on April 5th, I got the chance to chat with Affleck and opted to ask him if that was always the plan. Did he want to incorporate Michael Jordan this particular way since day one or did he ever consider a different approach? Here’s what he said:

“The fact that he was not in it is definitely the plan from day one because I just think he’s too big and meaningful and famous and grand to ever have the audience believe that somebody else was him, especially given an actor wouldn’t have the whole movie to try to flesh it out. I’ve seen it done. Denzel did it with Malcolm X, you know that thing where at the end of the movie you’re surprised that the real Malcolm X we see in the clips doesn’t look like Denzel, but that opportunity wasn’t available, and I thought it would undermine the movie.”

Image via Amazon Studios

Rather than tell the story from Michael Jordan’s perspective, Air follows Sonny and Deloris’ understanding of Michael’s next-level talent and how their belief in him inspires decisions that ultimately change sports marketing and athlete compensation for the better. Affleck continued:

“I didn’t want to use Michael’s image in that way, but really tell a story, kind of a fable about the people around him. It’s a story about the people who are around somebody who’s great and who means that much to the world, and I felt like it was kind of more interesting and more effective if all the things that we remember about him and that we have in our memories, we bring to it and imagine, the imagination is more powerful than anything you can do as a filmmaker.”

Looking for more from Affleck on the making of Air? You can find our full conversation with co-star Chris Tucker in the video interview at the top of this article! And if you want even more after that, you can check out our interview with Jason Bateman and Chris Messina below:

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