Ben Affleck and Matt Damon reunite (for the umpteenth time) in Air. The film pulls back the curtain that hides the machine responsible for turning Michael Jordan’s signature shoe into an idol. The film shows how the Air Jordan sneaker catapults Nike into athletic shoe supremacy and transforms Michael Jordan into a mythological superstar. Ben Affleck, the film’s director, gives us an ironic underdog story that actually evokes a surprising amount of pathos through its honesty and sentimentality. Air is ostensibly an Air Jordan origin story, but it’s really a celebration of vision, innovation, and persistence. Tangentially, the movie is also a fantastic homage to 1980s pop culture!
The year is 1984. Brick Motorolas and box Chevys run rampant across the land. Nike, Inc. is on the verge of shuttering its basketball division because companies like Converse and Adidas refuse to let it enjoy any meaningful market share. It’s an intolerable embarrassment for the “Just Do It” brand. (Steve Prefontaine is rolling in his grave at this point!) Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) valiantly accepts the challenge of standing up to these bullies on the company’s behalf. He will be its champion. However, fastidious Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), the company’s founder and CEO, gives him very few resources (or words of encouragement) to wage his war. Undeterred, Vaccaro enjoys a eureka moment one (k)night while watching Michael Jordan UNC highlights and comes up with a strategy that literally changes the course of world history.
The film goes on to lay out the marketing machinations of the industry in an interesting way. Chris Tucker emerges from the witness protection program to play Howard White, a sports marketing executive who helps convince Jordan’s family to align with Nike’s. The sporadic energy and humor that he brings to the role helps maintain the movie’s pace even though his screen time is fairly minimal. Jason Bateman serves a similar purpose with his portrayal of Rob Strasser. Strasser’s job really boils down to being a boring company man, but Bateman elevates the position into something more intriguing through the personality he brings to the part. Matthew Maher’s version of Peter Moore is the real treat of the movie though. He adroitly projects the nerdy brilliance and vision that goes into designing the original Air Jordan sneaker. Overall, Ben Affleck deftly uses this crew to show viewers how vulnerable Nike is at this time and seeing the enterprise in this light is delightfully disarming.
In addition to his directing duties, Affleck also plays Phil Knight in the movie. His depiction of Phil Knight feels a bit cursory at times, but he does a really good job governing the film. He makes the movie an energetic jog down memory lane, and he does it with purpose. He effectively shows the hard work and innovation that goes into being a successful disruptor. He shows how well a team can come together when it meets under the umbrella of earnest and effective leadership. Moreover, he shows us the power of faith and family. Sonny Vaccaro’s belief in an unproven Michael Jordan is inspiring. Damon’s passionate portrayal of Vaccaro’s diligence and commitment despite unrelenting skepticism provides viewers with important life lessons about conviction and optimism.
Part of the reason Air succeeds is because much of its story revolves around people not named Michael Jordan. Anyone that has inhaled oxygen at any point in the past century is well aware of the majesty of His Airness. He doesn’t need another chronicle and that’s why the movie actually spends very little time exalting him. I’m sure he takes that personally, but it’s actually a good thing for the movie and his story. Affleck minimizes the mystique of Michael Jordan by showing how people like his mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), engender his legend through love and support. This is not a Michael Jordan movie. It’s not even a Nike movie. It’s a movie about vision, persistence, and nostalgia.
Air is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.