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'Air' is an enjoyable, over-the-top love letter to the 1980s

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Air" tells the behind-the-scenes story of how, in 1984, Nike signed a landmark deal with Michael Jordan. The collaboration led to the hugely successful Air Jordan sneaker line. "Air" is the latest from director Ben Affleck, who appears in the film alongside Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker and Viola Davis. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: 1980s nostalgia has never been stronger, to judge by two new Hollywood movies about landmark '80s business deals that had a huge cultural and commercial impact. "Tetris," now streaming on Apple TV+, is an amusing but lumbering Cold War thriller about how Nintendo secured the rights to the hugely addictive Soviet-invented video game.

By far the better of the two is Ben Affleck's terrifically enjoyable new movie, "Air." It's an over-the-top love letter to the '80s, kicking off with a montage of the decade's most popular trends and celebrities, from Princess Diana to Cabbage Patch Kids, and cramming its soundtrack with hit artists from Violent Femmes to Cyndi Lauper. It's also an underdog movie in which the underdog is Nike itself, an Oregon-based sneaker company that in 1984 is known more for its running shoes than for its basketball shoes. Alex Convery's blisteringly funny script offers a blow-by-blow dramatization of how Nike managed to outmaneuver powerhouse rivals like Converse and Adidas and sign an NBA rookie named Michael Jordan. Their legendary deal would forever change not only Jordan and Nike's fortunes but also the entire landscape of celebrity endorsements and professional sports.

The story centers on Nike's in-house basketball expert, Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon with a paunch and a lot of polo shirts and presented here as the mastermind behind the deal. Sonny knows more about the game than anyone at the company, but he also has a gambler's impulsiveness that doesn't always pay off. And so when Sonny proposes that Nike go big and offer all of its annual $250,000 basketball budget to Jordan rather than dividing it among three or four players, his colleagues are skeptical, especially since Jordan is a known Adidas fan. Sonny eventually manages to sway top marketing executive Rob Strasser, played by a very good Jason Bateman. But he has a tougher time convincing Nike's CEO, Phil Knight, played by Affleck himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

MATT DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) I'm willing to bet my career on Michael Jordan.

BEN AFFLECK: (As Phil Knight) Come on, man.

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) You asked me what I do here. This is what I do. I find you players, and I f***ing feel it this time. OK, It's risky. When you were selling sneakers out of the back of your Plymouth, that was risky. It took b****. I mean, that's why we're all here. Don't change that now. I mean, if you look at him, if you really look at Jordan like I did, you're going to see exactly what I see.

AFFLECK: (As Phil Knight) Which is what?

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) The most competitive guy I have ever seen. He is a f***ing killer.

CHANG: When Jordan's agent, a hilariously foul-mouthed Chris Messina, refuses to so much as grant Nike a meeting, the hardheaded Sonny finds another way. He decides to drop in on Jordan's parents, specifically to talk to his mom, Deloris, known to be the guiding hand behind her son's decisions. And so Sonny heads out to the suburbs of Wilmington, N.C., and spends a few minutes with Deloris, played by an unsurprisingly superb Viola Davis. She listens as Sonny explains in persuasive detail why Jordan will be just another athlete at Adidas or Converse, whereas Nike will treat him like the superstar he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Deloris Jordan) What should I ask you?

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) Ask me why I'm in Wilmington, N.C.

DAVIS: (As Deloris Jordan) Why are you in Wilmington, N.C.?

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) Because I believe in your son. I believe he's different. And I believe you might be the only person on Earth who knows it. That's why I'm in Wilmington, N.C.

DAVIS: (As Deloris Jordan) Well, Mr. Vaccaro, thank you for coming.

CHANG: Sonny's risky move pays off. Once the Jordans agree to take a formal meeting with Nike, "Air" clicks into place as a kind of comic heist thriller in which Sonny and his colleagues all do their part to help close the deal. That gives the movie some resemblance to Affleck's Oscar-winning "Argo," which also turned a moment in history into breezy yet gripping entertainment. But "Air" is also heavily indebted to the walking and talking workplace dramedies of Aaron Sorkin, full of whip-smart cynicism and earnest speechifying. At one point, Sonny gives a genuinely stirring monologue about the singularity of Michael Jordan's greatness, the kind that leaves even other greats in the dust. He's getting at something here about what it means to leave a lasting legacy and how hard it is for even talented people to pull off.

There's a moving subtext to the scenes between Affleck and Damon, two aging Hollywood golden boys who seem to be contemplating their mortality even as their characters do the same. Even more poignant is the casting of two comedians who rose to fame in the '90s but who haven't been as prominent in the movies since. Marlon Wayans plays the Olympic basketball coach George Raveling, and Chris Tucker plays the Nike executive Howard White. Raveling proves instrumental in making the Nike-Jordan deal happen. So, in his way, does White, as one of the few Black men we see in Nike's upper ranks.

"Air" touches on a lot of ideas, though I do wish it'd dive deeper into some of them, especially when it comes to questions of race, culture and exploitation in the sports and shoe industries. At one point, Bateman's character briefly references Nike's use of sweatshop labor in Asia, though the point is quickly glossed over. And late in the game, Deloris Jordan makes the case for why Michael deserves not just a flat fee but a percentage of the Air Jordan revenues, arguing for athletes and their families to get the compensation they deserve. Her speech makes for one of the movie's most rousing moments, and it's almost enough to make you forget that you've been watching a feature-length Nike commercial, one that's far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Air," directed by Ben Affleck. On Monday's show, Grammy-, Tony- and Emmy-nominated singer and actor Josh Groban. He's playing Sweeney Todd in a new Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical about a barber out for revenge. Josh Groban has sold millions of records since he first started performing as a singer when he was 17 years old. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FRIENDS")

JOSH GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Speak to me, friend. Whisper. I'll listen. I know, I know you've been locked out of sight all these years, like me, my friend. Well, I've come home to find you waiting - home, and we're together. And we'll...

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FRIENDS")

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Mr. Todd.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Now with a sigh...

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Oh, Mr. Todd. You're...

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) ...You grow...

JOSH GROBAN AND ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: (As Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, singing) ...Warm in my hand.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My friend.

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) You've come home.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My clever friend.

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Always had a fondness for you, I did.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Rest now, my friend.

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Never you fear, Mr. Todd.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Soon I'll unfold you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.