The world didn’t need a bantamweight drama about the creation of a shoe, but here we are anyway. Of course, the Air Jordan isn’t just a shoe. It’s the shoe. And Air wisely uses that iconic sneaker to leap into a larger and more ambitious story, on how Jordan and a few corporate warriors at Nike leveraged his otherworldly abilities to create a global juggernaut. The game of basketball would never be the same, and neither would the marketing that surrounds it.
Air begins in the mid-80s, when the NBA lagged behind the NFL and MLB in popularity, and Nike sales settled into third, behind Adidas and Converse. When a basketball star did manage to become famous enough for a shoe deal, they never signed with Nike. Magic and Larry inked a deal with Converse. Kareem exclusively wore Adidas. Things were so bleak for the Swoosh, they considered scuttling their basketball department altogether.
Enter Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). He’s a paunchy, middle-aged dude who carries himself like a high school coach and has a strong intuition for the game of basketball. Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) recruits Sonny to invigorate their basketball division and give it direction. He immediately hits a wall of apathy, built by a lackadaisical staff resigned to their fate. They regard names from the upcoming NBA draft like last-minute nags at the horse track: John Stockton? Charles Barkley? Who?? Nothing matters anyway, because none of them will sign with Nike.
Sonny pores over those names, hoping to find a solution. When that answer comes, it takes the unlikeliest form: Michael Jordan, the young shooting guard out of North Carolina. On paper, he doesn’t seem like much of a savior. He’s skinny. He didn’t even make his varsity team until junior year. He wasn’t even the most heralded player on his college team. (That would be James Worthy.) But Sonny sees the potential for generational greatness embedded in Jordan’s supernatural athleticism and fearless mentality. He could change the entire game, and Nike could help him do it.
The only problem? Jordan’s big into Converse, and plans to go that way. That means Sonny has to make the sales pitch of a lifetime, and he needs all hands on deck to do it. This includes his skeptical boss (Jason Bateman), field sales manager (Chris Tucker), and a savant-like shoe designer (Matthew Maher). Together, they’ll have to convince Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), that they can elevate her son in ways the bigger shoe companies can’t.
Air is an engaging, intelligent drama that offers a backstage look at how sports marketing got flipped on its head. Sonny and the Jordan family arrive on an idea genius in its simplicity: Rather than utilize athletes to promote a brand, why not build a brand to promote the athletes? The resulting campaign far exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations, quickly establishing Michael Jordan as one of the most mythic figures in all of sports.
That monolithic fame supplies Air with both blessing and curse. Director Affleck and writer Alex Convery must create tension around a situation in which we already know the outcome. By and large, they do a surprisingly good job. For brief stretches, it’s possible to cast aside the legend around Jordan as a player and pop culture figure, and simply enjoy this film on its own terms. In other moments, Air gains dramatic momentum by showing historic moments from brand new angles.
Affleck draws strong performances from his all-star cast. Damon excels at playing the everyman, whose dad-bod and mild-mannered demeanor conceals a true basketball purist–a disciple for the game. In Sonny’s eyes, this isn’t a mission to broaden Nike’s interests or please the shareholders. No, Michael Jordan is a basketball messiah, and he should installed on his rightful throne. Affleck is quietly solid as the grounded businessman who secretly admires Sonny’s ballsiness. Nobody plays fussy and flummoxed quite like Jason Bateman, and his Rob Strasser spends the bulk of the movie vacillating between terror that Sonny is wrong and terror that he’s absolutely right. Chris Messina is a meteor of scorching profanity as David Falk, Jordan’s savvy, termpermental agent.
In a smart move, Affleck never lets us see young Jordan’s face, instead letting the camera trail a few feet behind him, or leaving his profile in shadow. Jordan is probably the world’s most iconic athlete, this side of Muhammad Ali. The minute he speaks any meaningful dialogue, the film’s orbit would instantly shift around his charisma, and we would care way less about Air‘s corporate shenanigans.
That leads to Affleck’s savviest choice of all: When the film shifts to the Jordan family, we see the story through his mother’s eyes. Davis is, predictably, Air‘s deepest source of humanity. Her Deloris is a walking, talking reminder that all this business is centered around actual human beings, and she will protect and promote her son at all costs. After the experience of Air, it’s fair to say Air Jordan would’ve never come to pass without such a fierce mother backing it. Davis’s presence in the film is small, but powerful.
If I’m gonna knock Air for anything, it’s Affleck’s irritating reliance on 80s nostalgia. The film opens with an orgy of pop hits, Reagan-fueled news clips, and even a “Where’s the Beef” ad. That assault continues for the reminder of the film, which includes interludes of REO Speedwagon and Alan Parsons to remind us of what the perms and Cutlass Supremes apparently can’t: This film takes place in a bygone era. Affleck could’ve watered the 80s cocktail to half-strength and the film would’ve been better for it.
Fortunately, that’s not enough to sink the entire experience. Air is compelling, with smart dialogue and great performances. You’ll know where the is headed, but I’ll wager you’ll still enjoy getting there. I was pleasantly surprised by this film, and I’d heartily recommend it.