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What I hate most about Air—director and co-star Ben Affleck’s slick docudrama about the origins of Nike’s lucrative 40-year partnership with Michael Jordan—is how much I liked it.
The reasons to look askance at this film are many. It’s a two-hour, unapologetic infomercial for Nike, a company that’s been shamed for its inattention to the grueling conditions under which its extremely profitable products are made since the early ’90s. It’s tangentially about Jordan—a culture-changing deity of an athlete, but not a man known for his graciousness in victory. Mostly, it’s about branding. Are you not entertained?
Air’s hero, real-life Nike marketing guy Sonny Vaccaro (a paunch-padded Matt Damon), is likable enough, but not exactly Crash Davis, or—to make a more apt comparison—Jerry Maguire. His quest is to persuade then-21-year-old Jordan to sign an endorsement contract with Nike instead of its rivals, and to convince his boss, Nike founder Phil Knight (Affleck in wacky mode, sporting a vibrant array of running tights and tracksuits), to bet their entire $250,000 talent budget on Jordan instead of spreading it among two or three lesser players. No one besides Sonny, save of course for MJ’s mom, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), has figured out yet that every baller in history will prove to be a lesser player.
That’s because it’s 1984, a fact Affleck underlines in every way possible, including having Nike exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman, dialing down his usual snark to welcome effect) remark that George Orwell was right because sales are down. Nike is getting clobbered by its competitors: Converse, which has already cut endorsement deals with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and Adidas, a brand so cool that Run–D.M.C. is rumored to be writing a song about it without the company having to pay them a dime. (The rap trio and the shoemaker did sign a deal in 1986, but not until after the track had already come out.)
In this primitive, pre-Air Jordan era, those brands are associated with basketball. Nike is—as executive Howard White (Chris Tucker, settling affably into his middle age and reportedly relying on his friendship with the real White to write his own dialogue) exposits—a jogging company. “Black people don’t jog,” he tells Sonny.
Sonny’s job is threatened if he can’t turn things around, and that’s as close as Air ever comes to anything like stakes. It’s admirable that first-time screenwriter Alex Convery doesn’t give Sonny, a 40-something divorcee who seems to have no interests outside of sports and sports gambling, some phony enhancement to make us root for him, like an illness or an adorable kid.
Adorable Kid was one of the strategies employed a generation ago by Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, a similarly sports-adjacent dramedy Air pays homage to in a couple of ways, including a cameo by Jay Mohr, who made his movie debut as the cutthroat agent who fired Jerry after Jerry’s fit of conscience back in 1996. Air also punctuates its narrative with close-up shots of Nike’s posted statement of principles, a set of aphorisms like “Your job isn’t done until the job is done” and “It won’t be pretty.” This echoes Jerry Maguire’s occasional direct-to-camera proverbs by Jerry’s mentor, Dicky Fox.
Finally, Air borrows one of Jerry Maguire’s most memorable needle drops, the awkwardly titled instrumental “Sitting Still Moving Still Staring Outlooking” by the awkwardly named band His Name Is Alive. Released in 1991, the track sticks out among all the Reagan-era hits Air features from the likes of Dire Straits, Cyndi Lauper, and REO Speedwagon, because it’s the only song that isn’t here to remind us yet again that the year is Nineteen Eighty-Four A.D.
Mostly, it’s a process movie, wherein Sonny tries to puzzle out how to make a more personal, heartfelt, Jerry Maguire-esque appeal to the Jordan family. It’s Olympic coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) who tips him off that Deloris is the decision-maker in the household. Raveling even throws in an anecdote about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—the first, but not the last, of Air’s attempts at profundity-by-association. Affleck even shoots the actor who plays 21-year-old MJ so that we never quite see his face, in the same oblique way we glimpsed a young Bob Dylan at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, or Jesus Christ in Ben-Hur.
That’s another thing that doesn’t quite sit right about this—again!—very entertaining couple of hours. Affleck, Convery, and all the film’s other principals want you to believe they’re standing up to the way corporations have historically screwed musicians and athletes, particularly Black musicians and athletes. Convery’s script takes the view that the deal Nike eventually struck with Jordan—wherein Jordan received a royalty on every pair of shoes marketed using his name, an income stream that would dwarf his earnings as a basketball player—was a historic step toward ending this kind of exploitation.
That this concession, negotiated in what functions as the movie’s climax, by Deloris, is fair is beyond any doubt. But because Deloris is played by Davis, an actor who exudes moral authority even in crap like Suicide Squad and, uh, The Suicide Squad, the filmmakers almost convince us that the deal, which made both Jordan and Nike shareholders insanely wealthy, was a triumph of racial and economic justice.
Affleck has said that Davis was handpicked by MJ himself for the part. But her excellence here is less of a surprise than how game Tucker and Wayans are, or how much fun it is to watch Damon’s Sonny and Chris Messina, as Jordan’s hard-nosed agent David Falk, trade profane insults over the phone.
The meta-story of Air is that Affleck and Damon are using the tale of how Jordan forever changed the way star athletes are compensated by corporations that trade on their names as a launchpad for their new production company, Artists Equity. The company seeks to extend profit participation in movies beyond the above-the-line talent—stars and directors—powerful enough to demand a share, theoretically allowing the hundreds of non-famous artisans whose names appear in the end credits to earn a piece of the spoils, too. Is this admirable aim negated by the fact their film is being released by Amazon, a company that, like Nike, has been squinted at for its labor practices? Discuss among yourselves.
Now that I think of it, not every period-appropriate needle drop here functions merely as a time stamp. Bateman’s Strasser tells Sonny during a long Saturday in the office that he’s noticed the sad story told in the verses of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is at odds with the fist-pumping triumphalism of the music. Air shares that form-vs.-content tension. It walks and talks like an inspiring sports flick, but it isn’t.
Air opened on April 5 and is currently playing in theaters nationwide.