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Movie review: 'Air'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The origin story of a shoe might not sound like dynamic movie material, but in "Air," the shoe in question is the one that put Nike on the map. The movie has an all-star cast, including Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Viola Davis. And according to critic Bob Mondello, "Air" is designed to have audience walking on air.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Beaverton, Ore., headquarters of the country's third-biggest maker of athletic shoes, where the mood is glum.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) 1984 has been a tough year. Sales are down. Our growth is down.

MONDELLO: Nike has just gone public, and its shareholders are getting antsy. Founder Phil Knight, played by Ben Affleck, wants to branch out from running shoes into basketball shoes. But to do that, the company needs a player endorsement deal. And Converse and Adidas have the edge, as a Nike executive points out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) People don't know what the hell a Nike is.

MATT DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) What's a Converse?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) NBA all-star shoe.

MONDELLO: That Converse question came from talent scout Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike true believer played by Matt Damon, who's arguing that they should blow their whole basketball budget on one player, a promising college junior from North Carolina named Michael Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) For a rookie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Who's never set foot on an NBA court.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) That's the literal definition of rookie. Yeah.

MONDELLO: As you can hear, even when they're paying his salary, Sonny doesn't suffer fools. Nor does he follow rules. When Jordan's agent won't entertain Nike's offer, Sonny hits the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Hey, where the hell are you?

DAMON: (As Sonny) North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Damn it, Sonny. What happened to a phone call?

DAMON: (As Sonny) I'm calling you now. I'm in the car. The rental car has a phone in it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Not me, the parents.

DAMON: (As Sonny) It would have been unprofessional for me to just call them up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Right. So just thought you'd show up at their front door.

DAMON: (As Sonny) Look. If anybody back there asks where I am, just tell them I'm sick.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You got it. Sick in the head.

DAMON: The thing is, Sonny's gambit pays off. Jordan's mom, played with authority to spare by a quietly commanding Viola Davis, agrees to listen to his pitch. And when he suggests some questions she might want to put to the competition, she turns that around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

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

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

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

DAMON: (As Sonny) 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.

MONDELLO: Alex Convery's script takes some liberties, but these are all real people, and the film's story is more or less the way it happened, heightened somewhat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) I'm willing to bet my career on Michael Jordan.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Come on, man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) You ask me what I do here, this is what I do. I find you players, and I f****** feel it this time.

MONDELLO: You know how it turned out. But as with most things, the devil's in the details. Affleck keeps "Air" airy by directing dialogue scenes as if they're passing drills, his players bouncing quips off each other...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) You got a name for it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Air Jordan.

MONDELLO: ...While he sometimes takes an easy layup himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (As character) Seriously?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Maybe it'll grow on me.

MONDELLO: "Air" is effortlessly entertaining, but it wants to be about more than just the marketing triumph of an underdog shoe company. So while it concentrates on how the sports-industrial complex rewards players rather than how it exploits them, it also gives Viola Davis...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (As character) A shoe is just a shoe.

DAVIS: (As Deloris) Until my son steps into it.

MONDELLO: ...The last word on the intersection of corporate profits and race. And it nods in passing to a Nike executive's qualms about the company's use of overseas sweatshops - side issues, but issues addressed airily, on the way to a happy ending about the billions of dollars that have flowed to one of history's great athletes and the company that tagged along by championing him. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.