‘Air’: SXSW Goes Wild for Ben Affleck’s Michael Jordan Biopic

Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Viola Davis and Chris Tucker scored a standing ovation at South by Southwest on Saturday night with their closing night film. “Air” was an immediate MVP, even without the attendance of its subject, basketball legend Michael Jordan.

One year after “Everything Everywhere All at Once” debuted at SXSW on its way to seven Oscar wins, the Austin festival launched another major crowd pleaser.

“Air,” directed by Affleck and written by Alex Convery, received not only rapturous applause when its credits rolled, but also sustained cheering throughout the inspirational film — particularly in scenes involving Davis as Deloris Jordan, negotiating with Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) for her son’s worth.

The film follows the origin story of Nike’s Air Jordan shoe line, which began with Vaccaro’s strong belief in Michael Jordan (Damian Young) when he was just a rookie. On top of directing, Affleck starred in the film as Nike co-founder Phil Knight, and he credited his co-stars for the pride he felt in the finished product.

“My entire directing strategy is to find brilliant people and say, ‘Just do it!’” Affleck said in the post-screening Q&A, playing on Nike’s famous slogan. “I’m not kidding. I feel like I just got to bear witness to all this performance and energy and their own authorship that they brought.”

“I’m lucky enough to be part of telling this story that has a resonance about value and worth and things far beyond what I can pass for authorship, into the deeper parts of this country and how we regard ourselves and one another,” he continued.”

Viola Davis — who Affleck called “the best actor in the world” during his opening remarks — said it was an honor to have played Deloris.

“I think she was doing what we mothers do. We believe in our kids more than anything else,” she said. “My mom was born in 1943. Deloris was born in 1940. She was born in a generation of people whose dreams were their kids. It’s the height of Jim Crow. It’s the height of Black people being told that their dreams didn’t matter. So for her to have that big vision for her son, and to believe it full-heartedly, is so miraculous.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 18: (L-R) Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Alex Convery, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Chris Messina, Jason Bateman, attend the “AIR” world premiere during the 2023 SXSW Conference and Festivals at The Paramount Theater on March 18, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for SXSW)
Getty Images for SXSW

“I showed up every day and had five to seven pages to do opposite actors like this,” said Damon, who also served as a producer on “Air.” “It was ridiculous. From the moment we read Alex’s script to the last cut we made, it was just absolute joy. This has been the best experience of my life. When you go to work with Viola Davis on a five-day scene, and at 10:30, you’re done, and it’s the best thing you’ve done in your career, you’re like, ‘Well, I guess we should keep working. What else can we do today?’”

“What Ben and Matt were able to do with this story, which is an American business story — they made a rock show out of that,” added Jason Bateman, who played Nike marketing exec Rob Strasser. “And it was somehow able to be enhanced by what Michael Jordan means to all of us. I’ll never think of Michael Jordan the same way again.”

There was one more A-list guest in attendance on Saturday, but she wasn’t part of the film: Jennifer Lopez, who swooped in silently to support her husband.

At the start of the premiere, Affleck stood alongside his cast onstage to introduce the film. Then, as the lights dimmed, Lopez joined him inside the theater. But the crowd barely got a look at her — a standing ovation began as soon as the film ended, and Lopez swiftly exited before the lights turned back on.