As someone who doesn’t play or follow competitive sports, I’m far from the target audience of Air. On its face, I couldn’t care less about a period piece on the deliberations of the C Suite of Nike Inc. and its struggle to capture a bit more market share from its rivals, Adidas and Converse, in the glass-towered oligopoly of athletic footwear.
And yet by the end of Ben Affleck’s fourth feature as director, I was fighting back tears, cheering on the suits from a company, with its sweatshops and history of child labor, that I’m supposed to despise. This is the magic act of Affleck’s breezy, smartly told dramedy, an endearing and unfussy narrative that somehow manages to position a ravenous multibillion-dollar corporation as the scrappy underdog in a
David-and-Goliath fable. So successful is Affleck at removing Nike’s taint, he could have a future in political consulting.
The devil is at least partly in the details. Air is set in 1984, and for anyone who grew up in that decade or has enjoyed its outsized pleasures posthumously, the movie is full is Pavlovian delights. Air luxuriates in its ‘80s-ness, from a soundtrack larded with synthesizers to the gaudy wallpaper of its sets and the pop-culture touchstones littering the mise-en-scène, from Ghostbusters merchandise to the vintage Slurpees and handheld video games. “The rental car has a phone in it!” exclaims a giddy Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a Nike marketing executive and the company’s chief basketball expert, as he speeds through rural North Carolina to visit the childhood home of a promising NBA draft pick named Michael Jordan.
Vaccaro’s pursuit of Jordan, which consumes the entire narrative of Air, arrives at a precipitous time for Nike. Claiming only 17 percent of the market share of athletic shoes, its basketball division is foundering. “Mr. Orwell was right; 1984 is going to be a tough year,” quips Jason Bateman’s Nike executive Rob Strasser. He has been granted a budget of $250,000 to invest in three or four un-endorsed rookies, none of whom light a fire among Nike’s inner circle. Except for Jordan, whom they cannot possibly afford — unless, by Vaccaro’s bold wager, they offer the incoming Chicago Bull the entire quarter-million. Only then can they hope to compete with the limitless pockets of Adidas and the star-studded roster of Converse, already home to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
For Vaccaro, this means not only persuading Nike CEO Phil Knight to approve the Strategy — Knight is played by Affleck, who revels in every minute of embodying the corporation’s koan-spouting guru — but deploying his gift of gab on Jordan’s parents. If that means going around official protocols and bypassing Jordan’s pugnacious agent (a career-best Chris Messina, all privilege and bluster behind a gargantuan
office desk), then so be it. To help seal the deal, perhaps they’ll even disrupt their industry by designing a signature shoe around Jordan’s inchoate persona.
Matt Damon’s gift, as in so many of his previous roles, is the invisibility of his performance. Paunchy, partially unshaven and looking his age, his Sonny Vaccaro is believable when he tells the cardio-driven Knight that, unlike the CEO’s fitness-forward approach, he doesn’t run. Damon’s contribution is so natural that it almost doesn’t register as acting — another magic trick, perhaps, under his old pal Affleck’s
But it’s Viola Davis, as Jordan’s mother Deloris, who not only steals every scene but, in basketball lingo, assists everyone around her, lifting them up to her level. Her intelligence an as actor is perhaps without peer in the current stable of A-listers, and her Deloris — world-weary, skeptical of the (white, always white) capitalists with their designs on her son’s future, and harboring no quarter for B.S. — represents the movie’s heart and soul. In one of her extraordinary scenes toward the end, I was flooded with emotion; when Michael Jordan saw it for the first time, he must have been a puddle.
On so many fronts, Air shouldn’t work as well as it does. Suspense, after all, is not in its DNA. Everyone knows about Jordan’s symbiotic relationship with Nike; one cannot spoil a foregone conclusion. But this savvy, literate, old-school movie for grown-ups manages to see beyond the faults of a corporation that has done rotten things and find the genius of the individuals who toiled there.
In its postscript, Air oversteps this goal by placing too much emphasis on Vaccaro’s later role in the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that granted college athletes the right to earn income on their name, image and likeness. This feels a bit overboard, ascribing nobility to men who, let’s face it, wanted to make boatloads of money in the “greed is good” era.
And yet, like many a sports movie, Air is a long-shot story of overcoming the odds, of succeeding when the deck is stacked against you. It’s a testament to ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking. It’s actually a great American story. Just succumb to it for two hours — and go back to hating Nike later.
AIR. Cast: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, Marlon Wayans; Director: Ben Affleck; Distributor: Amazon Studios; Rated R; Now playing in most area theaters