Sonny Vaccaro is a middle-aged, slightly overweight marketing manager at Nike’s ailing basketball division who frequents college games across the country in search of promising players to sign on with his employer. On his way back to Nike HQ in Beaverton, Oregon, in the lonely top-left corner of the United States, he often arranges a layover in Las Vegas to hit the casinos.
His routine is always the same. First, he makes money on sports betting. Then, he loses said money at the roulette table. How can Vaccaro be so good at one form of gambling but so bad at another? Because the risks of sports betting can be mitigated by one’s knowledge of the sport, roulette is just random chance.
This is what Air wants viewers to keep in the back of their mind as its opening sequence ends. The movie, which tells the story of how Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, convinces Nike to partner up with Michael Jordan and create the iconic Air Jordan shoe, premiered at South By Southwest film festival in early March. It will be available on Amazon Prime on April 5.
Back in 1984, partnering up didn’t seem like a good idea. Not to Nike, not to Jordan. Jordan was unaccomplished, his meteoric potential evident only to Vaccaro and his own mother Deloris, played by Viola Davis. Nike, meanwhile, was being pushed out of the market by competitors Converse and Adidas. Converse had the biggest players; Adidas was Jordan’s favorite brand.
Air is well-researched and well-written. Business negotiations in the film play out more or less the way they did in real-life, at least if the ESPN documentary The Last Dance can be believed. In the doc, Jordan says that although he preferred Converse and Adidas over Nike, only the latter was desperate enough to give his as of yet unrisen star a personal shoe line.
Occasionally, reality is warped for the sake of suspense. In the movie, Nike employees know they are going to get fined by the NBA because their bold Air Jordan design is too colorful. In truth, the company did not know about this rule until Jordan was already wearing them on the court. By that time, however, they were already making so much money that the fees were nothing more than a rounding error.
If you’re hoping to learn more about your favorite basketballer, you might be in for disappointment. Jordan himself hardly appears. When he does, he’s shown from the back and does not speak except for a “hello” here and a “thank you” there. This is because the movie isn’t really about him. It’s about the businessmen who fought for the right to market his name and likeness.
Thankfully, the script doesn’t ignore the fact that the vast majority of these businessmen were white. Vaccaro’s colleague Howard White (Chris Tucker) begrudges the lack of representation in his industry, an industry built on the backs of Black athletes. When closing the historic deal, Deloris insists that Nike give Jordan a share of the sales revenue—an unusual but fairer deal that Nike reluctantly accepts.
Air not only explores the racism that pervaded the basketball business, but also the sexism. At one point in the film, Vaccaro wrongly assumes a female employee to be his colleague Rob Strasser’s secretary. At another, I swear I saw David Falk (Chris Messina), Jordan’s sleazy manager, check out his own secretary’s ass when she walked away after handing him something.
Even when these little details don’t directly serve the plot, they add dimension and depth to both setting and character. Ben Affleck, who directs in addition to starring as Nike co-founder Phil Knight, pays close attention to both. 7-Eleven shelves are stocked with food items that were discontinued decades ago. Strasser (Jason Bateman) uses an unnecessary amount of paper towels to dry his hands.
These creative touches help humanize a film that, at its core, functions like one big Nike ad. The struggling company, which refuses to abandon its humble Pacific Northwest origins by relocating to the East Coast, compares favorably to Converse and Adidas. The former is presented as a faceless corporation. The latter, we are told over and over again, is run by Nazis. Nazis!
Contrary to what its marketing campaign would have you believe, Air is not a sports movie. It’s a capitalism movie, rooted in a relatively new and—to my knowledge—as of yet undefined genre that, in spite of its entertainment value and artistic merit, mostly exists for the purpose of glorifying American businesses, entrepreneurs and consumer products.
For context, other films and TV shows in this genre include but are not limited to: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, American Hustle, The Social Network, The Founder, Jobs, The Dropout and—most recently—Tetris, about a game nobody plays anymore and is relevant today only because it earned its creators a fuckton of cash.
Even when these films and shows are skillfully crafted—which, as I said, they often are—part of me can’t help but feel affronted by them. They’re like a physical manifestation of commodity fetishism, comfort food for a culture so hopelessly obsessed with its own purchases the film industry can market origin stories about sneakers and video games as if they were superhero films.
To illustrate, there’s this scene in Air where Vaccaro & co. come up with the “Air Jordan” name that’s treated the same exact way Christopher Nolan treated Bruce Wayne coming up with the name Batman in Batman Begins, or Joss Whedon treated the Avengers deciding to call themselves the Avengers. It’s a scene that wants audiences to cheer. Instead, I snorted my beer.But just because Air is about business rather than basketball, this does not mean that the movie lacks a soul. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are as emotionally attached to their Jordans as they are to the real Jordan because—as Vaccaro notes during a convincing speech—the shoe makes them feel connected to their hero. It’s good marketing, sure, but it’s also genuine.
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