The revolution may not have been televised, but it was written more than six decades ago. In 1984, another revolution took place with the introduction of Ben Affleck‘s Air, which changed the game and made Nike the ultimate choice in basketball shoes…Air Jordan.
Here in the UK, we may be a nation that prefers football over basketball, but American sports made their mark in the 1980s. Channel Four, in particular, brought us American football (NFL) and basketball (NBA). It was the decade when television exposed us all to more American pop culture. Even the opening credits of films played like a showreel of the decade’s iconography – the toys (Star Wars, Cabbage Patch Dolls), the products, and scenes from sports games.
Air is set in 1984, when it came to sales of trainers, especially basketball shoes, Converse led the way with Adidas in second place. Nike was at the bottom, with only 17% of the sales. We first meet Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) at a local school or college, watching a match for Nike and looking out for future talent to become part of the ‘Nike Family’ in the future (matches part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA).
He’s a man who takes risks, likes to gamble, and rarely loses. That trust would soon come into question at the regular meetings between the executives, including Rob Strasser (played by Jason Bateman), who goes through potential talent. Vaccaro wants the young Michael Jordan, an untested up-and-coming player. Everyone thinks he’s crazy and has no chance, as they only have a budget of around $250,000 to get a few players onboard. Sonny wants to blow the whole budget just on Michael. The problem is, Nike has been a PLC for a few years now, and the board won’t agree to the move. Losing millions of dollars, they need someone onboard, not mediocre players that Sonny suggests. He approaches his friend Phil Knight (played by Affleck), Nike CEO, with his proposal, but Knight thinks he’s crazy.
At this point, Michael Jordan would rather go to Adidas or Converse, as they were offering better deals and a car. Michael made it clear that he would never go near Nike. Sonny, much to everyone’s anger, including Michael’s agent David Falk (played by Chris Messina), heads to South Carolina to Michael’s parents’ home to directly offer Nike’s proposal. The one person Sonny would have to convince was not Michael Jordan himself, but his mother Deloris (played by Viola Davis). After much steam was let off by executives, CEOs, and agents, and after some negotiations, Michael decided to accept the meeting at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon
I think we can say that the rest is history, which is not a spoiler of any sort. Jordan would become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball players in the sports history. This is not a sports drama or biopic, but rather a story about marketing and business dealings beyond the creation of the Air Jordan shoe. When it comes to sports and the players from the outside, we tend to think it’s just about signing on paper and sorting out the wages. Nowadays, even in football, there are things like shirt and boot sales, video games, drinks, and so many other sales to tie in when you are one of the megastars of the game. We learn that Michael Jordan getting a percentage of the sales of the shoes with his name was also a first. From that day on, his name sold the shoes and the products. Nike even went as far as changing their logo to Jordan slam dunking.
Air is a film that feels more at home with the likes of “Le Mans ’66” or even “Moneyball.” Nike wanted to shape the shoe around their new asset, rather than just a shoe with his name on it. In the NBA, players’ shoes must have one dominant color, with logos being a certain size. The shoe would break all the rules, and Nike, if it got their man, would pay all fines. One wonders if Adidas or even Converse would have done the same.
Ben Affleck has consistently kept acting in roles, but Air is his first film as a director in seven years. Compared to Live By Night (2016), his last film, this is a fun and poignant movie that celebrates capitalism as much as one man’s determination (Sonny Vaccaro) to get his man. Matt Damon is superb as Sonny, and it’s been a while since the Bourne actor has had a great part he excels at. He’s joined by Viola Davis, who is wonderful as Deloris Jordan, and Chris Tucker is great as Howard White, the godfather of The Air Jordan Brand. Air may not be on the level of Argo or The Town in terms of enjoyment, but it’s a solid film that Basketball fans and non basketball fans will enjoy.
Drama | USA, 2023 | 15 | Cinemas | 5th April 2023 (UK) | Warner Brothers | Dir: Ben Affleck | Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, Chris Tucker,Matthew Maher