Review by C.J. Bunce
Last week we saw the negotiation of the rights for the video game Tetris in 1984. Further back Moneyball looked at unraveling the way baseball teams played the game. Air, the new Amazon Studios movie directed by Ben Affleck, is about a negotiation that changed basketball forever. The Air of the title is the Air of Air Jordan, the brand that still makes the Nike shoe company more than a hundred million dollars a year nearly 40 years after Michael Jordan signed the contract that changed both the shoe business and sports history. Calling Jordan the greatest athlete of all time is no joke, but 40 years still isn’t all that long ago, and any movie about him–and he isn’t even really in the movie–is going to feel like a big commercial or ego thing. That said, director and actor Affleck and long-time pal Matt Damon in the lead role as the man who made the deal happen, make the best of it with the help of a powerful cast.
In the big scheme of things Air is very much Moneyball-lite. And the thrills and tension are slight compared to Tetris. But it may be just as good as Jerry Maguire, another negotiation tale, but one about a fictional character. Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, one of five guys at the Nike company at its headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, who signed Jordan on a celebrity endorsement deal that propelled both Jordan and Nike into the stratosphere in the 1980s, replacing Adidas and Converse as the shoes American teens and adult males wore casually every day. Affleck solidly mirrors the Pacific Northwest business culture, and every scene is dotted with just the right ’80s pop song.
In 1984 Nike’s basketball shoe division was struggling, and this story suggests four guys were charged with changing it. At the top is Affleck as CEO Phil Knight, that typical 1980s-1990s CEO who read self-help and inspirational books he passed along to his employees from on high. Knight had a long-time friendship with Vaccaro, but Vaccaro wasn’t producing results. Like all American businesses, the long chain of command was goofy and hard to explain or probably to justify. One level up from Vaccaro was Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser. Bateman’s Strasser exhibits that easy-going office lifestyle, and we learn he’s keying in on a divorce and getting custody of his daughter. The head of the basketball division at Nike is Chris Tucker as Howard White. Bateman is perfect as the 1980s manager, and Tucker leans into playing White as a real, down to Earth fellow. Damon, Bateman, and Tucker have many pictures and series in their portfolios, but they perform here the kind of character roles, believably, that you can imagine enjoying again years from now. Knight is a typical cameo of sorts for Affleck, but you can tell he has some fun with it. Vaccaro uses each of these three men as his sounding board. Ultimately he must convince all three to make a play for Jordan.
What you must remember is that Michael Jordan hadn’t done anything in the NBA yet. Jordan is such a household name now one of the challenges that Air really breezes over is a crystal clear moment for the audience to understand Vaccaro putting all of Nike’s eggs in one basket was a really big risk for the company.
Vaccaro’s enemy is Michael Jordan’s agent, Chris Messina’s David Falk. Some of the most fun of the movie is Damon and Messina yelling at each other, posturing, and staking their sides. But the most fun is Damon making his case to his Nike management team, and the biggest fan moment is seeing Matthew Maher as real-life designer Peter Moore discussing and designing the prototype for the first pair of Air Jordans. Affleck cleverly saves the image of Jordan flying, which became the logo on each pair of shoes, for the end credits.
But the show is about negotiating a deal. Surprisingly, it’s not between Vaccaro and Jordan’s agent, or between Vaccaro and Jordan himself, but between Vaccaro and Jordan’s mom, which makes it a good watch for this Mother’s Day. Viola Davis plays Deloris Jordan, and it’s the three negotiations between Damon and Davis that put the movie into Moneyball territory. Davis plays Jordan’s mom as quite simply a savvy negotiator. She also brings the heart to the story. She believes in her son, and yet Michael wants to sign with Adidas, the German shoe company all the kids were wearing. At that point, Magic Johnson, Dr. J, and Larry Byrd were signed with Converse. Jordan would have been #4 there. Vaccaro takes an unusual approach to getting Mrs. Jordan on his side. The audience, sports fans or not, shoe fans or not, will have fun watching it all play out.
As I discussed in my review of the sneaker/tennis shoe culture book Collab here at borg, a bigger group of Americans and international consumers spend time thinking about and buying shoes than you might think. And yes, Air feels like a big Nike ad, just like Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m a Shoe was an Adidas ad. Air is everything you’d expect it to be, but a good cast, good direction by Affleck, and a good story (written by Alex Convery), make a pop culture hero and a snippet of his story a good two hours of entertainment.
Air is in limited theaters now, and it’s streaming on Prime Video.
Happy Mother’s Day!