2023, R, 112 mins.
Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro / Ben Affleck as Phil Knight / Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser / Marlon Wayans as George Raveling / Chris Messina as David Falk / Chris Tucker as Howard White / Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan / Julius Tennon as James Jordan / Damian Young as Michael Jordan / Matthew Maher as Peter Moore / Gustaf Skarsgård as Horst Dassler / Barbara Sukowa as Kathy Dassler / Jay Mohr as John FisherDirected by Ben Affleck / Written by Alex Convery
The new historical sports drama AIR - director Ben Affleck's fifth film and his first behind the camera since 2016's LIVE BY NIGHT - takes its name from the famous brand of Nike basketball shoes that were produced for Michael Jordan back in 1984. Designed for the company by Peter Moore, Tinker Hatfield, and Bruce Kilgore, the first Air Jordans hit the market for consumers the following year, coming after Nike's courtship and signing of Jordan to a then unheard of five year, $2.5 million dollar marketing contract, which obliterated just about any other deal that any other prominent NBA star was getting at the time.
Nike's goal was to make $3 million in sales off of Air Jordans in the first year.
They ended up making over $125 million, cementing the shoe in pop culture/sports history, establishing Nike as the major force in its industry, and, yes, making Jordan an insanely rich young man in the process.
The thought of a film based on the making of... a shoe...doesn't sound all that enticing, not to mention that the outcome of Nike's partnership with the then NBA rookie Jordan won't come as a surprise to anyone in the audience before its end credits roll by. What makes Affleck's AIR so utterly enthralling and thanklessly entertaining is that it takes the accoutrements of the underdog sports drama and instead of focusing squarely on the athletes and their "big proverbial game" triumphs, the film opts to tell a rousing story of a down on its luck corporation that did the unthinkable of nabbing their big game client in Jordan away from the more lucrative power players of the era and, in turn, crafted one of the most iconic pieces of apparel of the last 40 years.
Jordan not only fundamentally changed the face of pro sports with his play on the court, but he also launched a fashion revolution in the process that made his name one of the most successful brands ever. In many respects, AIR is not at all about Jordan, but rather the desperate people behind the scenes at Nike - a struggling company that was at the time a third place sneaker competitor versus Converse and Adidas - that aimed exceedingly high and won big. With a razor sharp screenplay by first timer Alex Convery (who deserves a worthy comparison to the best of Aaron Sorkin here), an embarrassment of performance riches by a grade-A cast, and Affleck's smoothly confident direction, AIR takes well worn genre formulas, twists and turns them, and in the end emerges as a wickedly enjoy and intrinsically fascinating piece of sports and corporate history.
The movie opens right smack dab in 1984, during which time the Oregon-based Nike, Inc. is on exceptionally bad financial footing, due primarily to poor shoe sales when compared to their direct rivals. CEO Phil Knight (played exceptionally well by Affleck), realizes that his company that he built from scratch is on the verge of going under unless he and his team can get a big-name pro-basketball player signed. The big problem was simple: Nike wasn't cool at the time and every basketball player was wearing and peddling shoes from Converse and Adidas. Knight rounds up his troops - comprised of Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), basketball scout Sonny Vacaro (Matt Damon, re-teaming with Affleck again after THE LAST DUEL), and deal closer Howard White (holy crap...it's Chris Tucker, as good as he's ever been!) - to brainstorm ideas.
Sonny is enamored with the recently drafted (third overall) Michael Jordan (who's never fully seen in the film, more on that in a bit) and is convinced that - after watching some of his college games - that he's poised to become one of the greatest players in sports history. Jordan himself has publicly supported Adidas shoes and - as far as word on the street goes - will undoubtedly sign with them. Sonny knows a sure thing when he sees it in Jordan, even if Knight and his colleagues think that signing a rookie that hasn't played an NBA game yet (and that's a die-hard Adidas fanboy) will not only be impossible, but potentially could be business suicide. After much heated debate, Knight gives Sonny the greenlight to go after Jordan, but he faces large uphill battles in the form of his agent, Dave Falk (played to foul-mouthed antagonism perfection by Chris Messina), who refuses to allow Sonny to sit down with the real brains and power of Jordan's business future, his mother Delores (a pitch perfect Viola Davis). It's a major business no-no to bypass agents and meet and talk directly to a client and his family, but Sonny throws absolute caution to the wind and journeys out to meet the Jordans to convince them to allow Nike to have a meeting with their son.
Everyone that was not living under a rock in the mid-80s knows precisely which company Jordan signed for, which arguably makes AIR an anticlimactic movie as far as suspense goes. Yet, it's not the preordained ending of Affleck's film that counts, but rather the whole journey building up to said ending that makes it so intriguingly. The film casts a spotlight on the people behind the scenes outside of the sport in question, which partially helped define a star athlete forever in the hearts and minds of sports and fashion die-hards the world over. It's a shrewd move that Affleck never once shows Jordan full-on; he opts to have his camera linger on him quickly from behind while cutting to his family members, and he perhaps only utters a few words in the whole film. AIR is not a Michael Jordan biopic. The film is about Nike's audacious - and potentially business-destroying - attempts to grab a highly elusive client to give them the cutting edge over other companies that were slowly destroying them. If Nike didn't get Jordan, they would definitely have gone bankrupt. Knight gave Sonny every penny they had left to secure him, which proved to be endlessly difficult based on his Adidas loyalty and the obvious protective stance that his mother had over him. Jordan did his work on the court, but Delores was the cunning negotiator off of it for her son. That, and she believed that people like her son that were destined for supremacy deserved to be properly compensated for it. It's easy to see Jordan as the billionaire he is now, but there was a time when he wasn't, and all his mother wanted for her son was a deal that would get him a proper piece of the marketing action. In hindsight, that seems totally fair.
The true lead character in this whole film is Damon's Sonny, who had the foresight and vision to do something that was unheard of in his industry: build an entire shoe fashion line on just one player. It's impossible to overstate how risky this was for Nike in 1984. Literally no pro-basketball players wore or endorsed their product, not to mention that the Black community as a whole wanted nothing to do with Nike shoes. Those are gigantic hurdles for a financially struggling company, leaving Sonny feeling the burden of insane pressure being placed upon him. Damon is so sensationally effective playing this pudgy everyman working hero, who carries the passionate torch for seeing Jordan as the next big thing in sports, but essentially has to hustle his way to make Nike's deal of a lifetime that would save them. Nike was the million to one shot as far as companies went to securing Jordan, and one of the alluring hooks in AIR is the thought process that actually went into the making of the first Air Jordan for the company's first make-or-break meeting with him. Scenes involving Peter Moore (Mathew Maher) and his design team coming up with the now iconic design over a weekend are fascinating. He understood that the only notable and innovative change in shoe design over six hundred years has been the crafting of left and right shoes. The Air Jordan would have to be a radical game changer and convince the NBA-star-to-be that Nike was hip enough to get into bed with.
There have been so many films about corporate work culture and power dynamics that show CEOs as unscrupulously greedy and lacking in vision and the workers under them getting no credit or recognition. One of the finest elements of AIR is the way it respects all of the various players that were a part of the Jordan acquisition. Knight himself has a swinging dick level of arrogance and swagger about him as CEO here, but he's also a pragmatist that has responsibilities to keep his company afloat and not be too risky in the process. He also understands and respects the important people under him, like Sonny and what they bring to the table. A lot of AIR takes place inside Nike's offices, conference rooms, technical labs, and so forth, but it pays reverence to the people there that put everything on the line to make their company great, and in the process sacrificed everything. The Oscar-worthy script by Convery fleshes out all of these real life characters exceedingly well and gives them all their individual moments to shine. The dialogue here is rich and colorful, especially during a heated confrontation between Sonny and Knight about why taking risks will save Nike (seeing Affleck and Damon play off of one another is a real treat), or during one telling moment when hot heated Jordan agent David Falk vulgarly eviscerates Sonny over the phone for going around him to meet Jordan. I especially liked Bateman - one the finest deadpan deliverers out there - sinking his teeth into his VP and revealing how he had an epiphany about how Springstein's BORN IN THE USA is not a song about patriotism, but rather about the disillusionment of America's involvement in Vietnam and the working class struggles of people (that changed his whole perception on marketing). Some of the film's best moments are its quieter ones, like Sonny's heart-to-heart backyard chat with Delores (a reliably sensational Davies), who lends a calm ear and a willingness to listen, but will not allow her son be taken advantage of in any way by any company.
As a period piece, AIR is fully cemented in its neon-hued era and also functions as a great piece of nostalgia. Affleck ensures that viewers are deeply entrenched within the world of the mid-80s with a strong immediacy. The film is wall-to-wall with classic tunes of the era (and if I could nitpick a bit, perhaps a bit too much), and has an opening montage that's an explosion of the highs and lows of the decades' fashion, technology, pop culture staples, consumer trends, and political history. This was a period before the Internet, social media, and smart phones in every pocket. And, most crucially, this was a moment in history before Jordan became a basketball legend and before his branded apparel changed how people dressed. Yes, AIR is about a shoe, but as the film unfolds the significance of this product becomes married to the idea that those that work hard deserve to be rewarded, which is at the heart of Delores' final contract demands with Nike. Beyond the standard aspects of the offered contract, she demanded that her son get a percentage of every shoe sold, which was unfathomable for any athlete at the time. That wasn't a move born out of pure greed, but rather out of getting what was deserved and right. As Sonny's impassioned monologue delivered late in the film directly to Jordan embellishes, he wanted him to join Nike because his future basketball exploits would not only make him rich, but immortal at the same time. Any company can make a shoe, but Nike wisely knew that the man in the shoe truly made it and gave it value. That's ultimately what persuaded Jordan to sign and the rest is history, but his family's desire to be properly compensated had ripple effects on the larger industry as a whole. We learn that - in the future - Sonny would go on to help fight a historic case against the NCAA to allow for college players to get proper compensation for their performances, which was won.
It's sometimes easy to overlook the two-time
Oscar winning Affleck (once as a writer and once as a producer) as a
gifted filmmaker, but over the years he has demonstrated himself to be one
of the finest and most consistent working directors out there, from his
bravura rookie debut in GONE BABY GONE
to remarkable sophomore efforts like the gritty crime drama THE
TOWN to his Oscar winning historical thriller ARGO
and now AIR. His return to directing after a seven year absence is
not only a most welcome one, but it also reiterates how adept he is at
tackling various subject matter from different parts of history with a
unique aesthetic eye. And as an actor's director, he intuitively
understands the value of surrounding himself with exceptional talent to
see his films through to successful fruition. Best of all, AIR is
the type of rare breed of film these days that caters to adults that
places prominence on dialogue, performances, strong craftsmanship, and
solid storytelling above all else. This isn't a large-scale and
heavily budgeted film, but one that defies the odds and delivers a
genuinely fist-pumping and inspirational sports tale from an atypical
prerogative as far as its genre is concerned. To use a basketball
metaphor, AIR scores a massive cross-court buzzer beater shot with nothing
but net and is easily one of the year's most engaging and enjoyable films.