Release: Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Written by: Alex Convery
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Matt Damon; Ben Affleck; Jason Bateman; Viola Davis; Chris Tucker; Marlon Wayans; Chris Messina
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Air is a sports drama detailing the birth of the Air Jordans, the Nike shoe line that would change the sports marketing landscape forever. It may not be the kind of material that gets the adrenaline flowing in the traditional way, but Ben Affleck and a star-studded cast bring the brand recognition necessary to make a film about footwear actually fun.
Directed with verve by Affleck, with a script provided by Alex Convery, Air plays out as a corporate underdog story about how Nike, then a distant third to rivals Adidas and Converse, managed to woo a young Michael Jordan to the most lucrative athlete endorsement deal in history. It’s also a total time capsule of a movie, shuttling us back to the era of questionable fashion, big hair and the beeper. The opening montage pulls us down a tunnel of 80s nostalgia before settling on 1984 and a blocky brick building in Beaverton, Oregon.
It’s in these relatively limited confines of the Nike corporate headquarters where Robert Richardson’s camera swooshes through like a nervous intern trying to identify where all the most important rooms are, taking us into the lab where dust gathers compared to the way in which things are about to change. Everything including the mood seems to be trending downward, red lights flashing. It’s this limited line of sight that makes Air not the victim of predictability, but rather the beneficiary of hindsight and dramatic irony.
Nike founder, CEO and meditator-in-chief Phil Knight (Affleck) is particularly concerned over the future of his basketball shoe division, which is coming off of an annual loss. He taps brash talent scout Sonny Vaccaro, portrayed by an affable (and out of shape) Damon, to find a new spokesperson. Vaccaro, in essence the star and to whom the film plays as a belated thank-you note, believes Nike’s saving grace is in getting Jordan to sign with them. Convincing the 21-year-old hot shot to walk away from his preferred choice (Adidas, then the market leader) isn’t going to be easy. And as marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) doggedly reminds him, even less financially viable.
Vaccaro wants to allocate their entire $250,000 budget to attracting a player who he sees as a generational, franchise-changing talent. He will differentiate Nike from the field by not just building a shoe, but custom designing a product specifically for MJ, despite him not yet having played a minute of pro ball. Matthew Maher portrays designer Peter Moore, whose conception of the name ‘Air Jordan’ serves as an amusing bit of controversy. Of course Vaccaro’s plan is met with heavy skepticism, not just from his colleagues but from Jordan’s ruthless agent, one David Falk (Chris Messina, whose research seems to have been heavily based on Jeremy Piven in Entourage).
Staking his entire reputation on a hunch while incurring the wrath of the super agent in the process, Vaccaro packs his car for Wilmington, North Carolina, where he plans to speak directly to the parents, James (Julius Tennon) and Deloris Jordan (an outstanding Viola Davis, acting alongside her real-life husband). As MVP of the movie Davis exudes the appropriate gravitas of Mrs. Jordan, the x-factor. This woman knows how to negotiate. With crystal ball clarity she lays out the future — Michael will be the icon to which the NBA will hitch its wagon, not the other way around. Accordingly, she expects her son to be given his share of the pie. (In its first year of sales, the Air Jordan brought in $126 million, against a projected $3 million in three years.)
Despite the title Air stays grounded in reality. With the exception of the big pitch scene at Nike HQ where again Vaccaro finds himself going off-script, very little about the dialogue feels heightened for a Hollywood-friendly flavor. Tension is derived from real world concerns over reputation and livelihood rather than some fabricated event. To that extent, most of the characterization is restricted to professional ambition. There are hints at complications beyond the office, and Bateman has a good scene where he confides what’s at stake for him, personally, should Vaccaro not pull this stunt off, but the plot mostly keeps the focus on the business at hand.
Air is a highly specialized movie to the point where Jordan himself barely registers as a blip. Instead he hangs around the edges of the frame, unknowable for now and untouchable later. That we don’t much notice he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue speaks to the engrossing nature of these conversations.
Moral of the Story: A sports story almost entirely lacking the cliche one expects out of the genre, Air undoubtedly is a movie that requires some knowledge of basketball history and a fandom for the game itself. At the same time, the star power goes a long way in making the esoteric more accessible and interesting. You could consume this crazy true story as an uplifting drama about career ambition and the power of self-confidence. Streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Running Time: 112 mins.
Quoted: “A shoe is just a shoe.”
“. . .until my son steps into it.”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com