At first glance, the trailer for Ben Affleck’s new directorial effort “Air” looks like an odd curio. Based on the true story of Nike’s historic endorsement deal with Michael Jordan, its marketing is indistinguishable from any number of other, similar movies featuring recognizable character actors in suits parroting business jargon at one another. But it begs the question, why would the origin story of one of the most influential pieces of streetwear be executed so plainly and so removed from the aesthetics of fashion? And why would a chapter in African American pop cultural history be shepherded to the big screen by a white man so Bostonian his visage is forever interlinked with the Dunkin’ Donuts logo?
On the surface, it certainly looks like “Air” is a movie about lionizing Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike basketball guru who, in 1984, before Jordan ever set foot on an NBA court, championed the future legend — a risky gamble by the struggling shoe brand. Vaccaro, played with maximum charisma by Affleck’s BFF Matt Damon, is the film’s protagonist. Through his eyes and implied hoops acumen, he must sell to the rest of the non-believers the prospect of betting Nike’s basketball division on an unproven rookie.
But as the film unfolds, and we see Vaccaro butt heads with Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight (played by Affleck himself), it becomes clear this isn’t just a story about a brilliant white guy who prospered off the back of betting on black. “Air” is about the power of belief in great art and the necessity in ownership of all that it yields.
The film’s first act reeks of period piece, biopic chicanery. Affleck goes a little too hard in the paint setting the stage and establishing the timeline by overstuffing audiences with a buffet’s worth of ’80s iconography. It has the relative effect of being beaten about the face with a Teddy Ruxpin doll while “99 Luftballons” plays.
But once the tone and time settle, the story’s comedic charm gives way to a more nuanced exploration of the nature of myth and its unenviable position at the intersection of commerce and legacy. With his expertise on the nature of basketball as a sport and as spectacle, Vaccaro sees in Michael Jordan the potential for the kind of greatness that shakes the firmament of culture. He moves from boardroom to boardroom, unable to convince his colleagues of this, until he finds the only other person who believes as he does.
Viola Davis steals the show as Jordan’s mother, Deloris. From the moment she comes on screen, she becomes the real focal point of the film, as if Vaccaro had been shuffling around in the dark until he can see the flashlight she’s held the entire time. She wants to get the best deal possible for her son. Her son hates Nike and is more than happy to sign with Adidas. But with Vaccaro’s vision, Nike is the only one willing to offer him his own line of shoes and the promise to center him as an attraction. The movie has a blast getting into the inner workings of shoe design and the logistics of brand management, with cute asides about their Air Jordan prototype having too much of the color red for NBA standards and Nike paying the fines for each game he wears them as a means to build controversy and buzz. Having MVPs like Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, and the film’s true breakout, Chris Tucker, in the supporting cast adds electricity to even the most straightforward talking head scenes.
But it’s pretty late in the show that the real crux of this story is made plain. The true novelty in the Jordan deal is the then-unprecedented commitment to profit sharing, with the star athlete making a percentage of every shoe sold. It takes nearly two hours of seeing stuffy white men in suits haggle and argue over how to make the most money conceivable off of a sport mainly comprised of Black players to arrive at the film’s true destination. We finally see the compromise that paved the way for some sense of ownership for the talent who imbue these products with the cultural cache they need to transcend their inert status as “just shoes.” Capitalism is just rich people in a room wringing magic from those they deem lesser to turn a profit, whether it’s basketball players making shoes cool to teenagers or the nimble fingers in the factories stitching these shoes together.
“Air” is the first film released from Affleck and Damon’s new production venture Artists Equity, a studio designed to produce diverse and ambitious films aimed directly at adults , all while giving the people that make those films, cast and crew alike, a stake in the film’s ensuing profit. Like the sports world, Hollywood has an inconsistent and often baffling relationship between who is creating the value and who actually gets to keep what is wrought from it. Watching the Air Jordan deal unfold, and drawing a line from it to several other developments in the industry, feels a lot like a mission statement for Artists Equity.
Artists Equity sold this movie to Amazon, and it’s the first film the retail and media giant is releasing theatrically without a simultaneous Prime Video release since before the pandemic. That it is, on a rudimentary grading scale, a B+ picture feels beside the point. We used to get tons of movies just like “Air” every year, so if this theatrical gamble pays off for Affleck’s company the way Vaccaro’s paid off for Nike and the Jordan family, perhaps every new movie advertised to us won’t have a number at the end of its title or “based on a video game” on its poster.
“Air” is currently playing at The Charles, The Senator, and other area mainstream cinemas.