Americans spend tens of billions of dollars on basketball sneakers every year. Sure, everybody needs shoes, but it shouldn’t matter if your choice bears the Nike swoosh, Adidas’ three stripes or the Converse star. In most cases, consumers aren’t simply buying footwear; they’re investing in the fantasy of walking in someone else’s shoes — a sports star or personal idol — of believing that switching one’s kicks has a direct impact on your potential for greatness.
As the Nike marketing gurus in Ben Affleck’s “Air” put it, “A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into.” If you’ve been alive on earth in the last 40 years, then you already know what happened when a rookie named Michael Jordan let Nike put his name and likeness on their shoes. But “Air” isn’t about convincing the greatest basketball player in the history of the game to sign with Nike, although a “Jerry Maguire”-desperate Matt Damon — as paunchy, flop-sweating Sonny Vaccaro — might trick you into thinking this is just the (admittedly very entertaining) anatomy of a landmark business deal.
Instead, “Air” ought to be taken as the ultimate example of the American Dream, a Cinderella story of sorts about how the third-place sneaker brand wished upon a star, and how that man — and his mother — were smart enough to know their value. “Air” reveals how an exceptional Black athlete leveraged his talent and the power of being pursued by a bunch of white men in suits, to change the game. Not just basketball, but the whole field of celebrity endorsements. It’s remarkable and fitting that Affleck focuses these negotiations not on Michael Jordan but the woman he trusted most, his mom, Deloris (Viola Davis).
The year is 1984, as an opening pop-culture montage reminds/educates audiences about the early days of the ultra-sophisticated advertising world we now live in: Apple hired Ridley Scott to direct a Super Bowl commercial; Wendy’s turned “Where’s the beef?” into a national catchphrase, and sports stars were everywhere from Wheaties boxes to TV commercials. Nike had branded itself as a running shoe company, and no serious basketball player wanted to sign with them. Sales were down, and company founder Phil Knight was ready to pull the plug on the entire division.
In a sly move, Affleck casts himself as Knight, playing the OG “shoe dog” as a comic figure with an ill-fitting wig and an aloof sense of timing. Most corporate CEOs step on other people’s sentences, butting in before their underlings have finished speaking, but not this guy. He waits a beat before responding, as if his attention might be divided between the conversation at hand and a dozen other thoughts. On the wall of Knight’s office hangs a giant sign listing the 10 rules by which Nike operates. Rule No. 2 reads, “Break the rules.” But in 1984, Nike was a publicly traded company, and boards expect rules to be observed.
Enter Vaccaro, Nike’s in-house basketball guru, whom “Air” introduces as a betting man: He stops by Vegas after a scouting trip, and loses it all on craps. But it’s more than a hunch that tells him Nike should invest its entire quarter-million-dollar basketball marketing budget on one player, as oppose to spreading it among several lower-ranked draft picks. Never mind that Jordan is an Adidas guy; forget that the German company (at which “Air” takes a few sharp digs) can outspend anything they offer.
Jordan’s genius on the court practically goes without saying, and yet screenwriter Alex Convery shrewdly decodes the 21-year-old’s potential, spelled out after Vaccaro studies tape of Jordan’s first year on the University of North Carolina’s team. This and other key moments play like classic Aaron Sorkin scenes, blending the inside-baseball insights of “Moneyball” with “The Social Network”-style power games. His characters aren’t quite as compelling as Sorkin’s, but they express themselves beautifully. Between nostalgia-baiting ’80s radio hits, they walk and talk strategy (around production designer François Audouy’s great sets) or else cut one another down in private (as old friends Damon and Affleck do at several points).
In the film’s most galvanizing monologue, Vaccaro finally gives Jordan (whose face appears only in archival footage) and his parents (Davis and Julius Tennon) the pitch. Who knows what Vaccaro really said in that room, but this speech — intercut with the triumphs and pitfalls of Jordan’s career — summarizes everything Michael Jordan means to us, his fans and the legions of Americans he inspired. To get to this moment, Vaccaro must first convince Knight to endorse his plan; he has to deal with Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, hilariously hostile); and he has to drive out and face Deloris in person.
Casting Davis was the smartest thing Affleck could have done, as the EGOT winner is to acting what Jordan is to sports: Her strength inspires, and she can move us to tears while making it look easy. We all know what happened with the Air Jordan deal — the shoe launched the collectible sneaker culture that surrounds us today — and yet, Davis forces Damon to work for the family’s approval.
Meanwhile, as Vaccaro, Damon channels the same nervous energy that defined his underrated, but career-best performance in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”: At times, the entire scheme seems to be cratering around him, and in that moment, Damon brings the same competitive spirit we associate with sports movies into the boardroom. It’s too bad the character doesn’t have a personal life to speak of. At least Nike marketing exec Rob Strasser does (played here by Jason Bateman), spelling out the stakes in a touching birthday scene.
Memorable parts by Chris Tucker as Howard White, who traded his basketball uniform for a corporate suit, and Marlon Wayans as 1984 Olympics coach George Raveling notwithstanding, “Air” often seems to be focused on the whitest guys in the room. But Affleck is hardly blind to the racial dynamics underlying this whole saga, revealing how Deloris ensured that corporate America couldn’t exploit her son.
Then and now, Nike’s shoes weren’t necessarily any more stylish or advanced than their competitors’ — although the original Air Jordans are a thing of beauty. The company’s sneakers owed nearly all of their mystique to the athletes who wore them. In 1984, Michael Jordan was still a rookie rather than a myth, and yet the movie works because everybody knows what he went on to become. The last of Knight’s 10 rules reads, “If we do the right things we’ll make money damn near automatic.” The Jordan deal saved the company. The rest is his story.