One of my favorite pairs of Nikes is the Jordan Retro 13s. When you’re younger, you walk the perfect balance of wanting to play basketball in them to emulate Michael Jordan or tiptoeing around the slightest bit of dirt so you don’t mess them up. But Nike wasn’t always the 46 billion dollar revenue-making, SNKRS app-crashing entity it was in the 80s.
Oh no. In 1984, Nike only had 17% of the market share – losing out to brands like Adidas and Converse. Air finds the company between a rock and a hard place. Yes, they have the running market on lock, but their fledging basketball division fails to make inroads. Adidas is an iconic brand synonymous with hip hop and Run DMC (they have tracksuits!), and Converse has the backing of NBA hall-of-farmers like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
This is still a money-making corporation, so Air might put the audience in a peculiar position of rooting for the little guy (in this case, Nike) to overcome. However, director and co-star Ben Affleck frames this story in a way where the performances shine to make you believe in all the players involved. The story builds around Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) needing a home run.
Undoubtedly, he knows the ins and outs of what makes NBA players great, but it needs to translate into a hit show fast because the board and his boss CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), are running out of patience. While Sonny is searching for players to market, he watches highlights of Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship game for North Carolina. He sees something special in him and is willing to put his job on the line to get the eventual greatest player of all time to Nike.
We all know how Jordan’s story ended up with a brand as strong as ever today. Writer Alex Convery narrows its focus on the painstaking process of how this happened. Michael Jordan himself is not featured in this film – other than a couple of words of dialogue and an actor whom the audience doesn’t get to see. That’s perfectly fine, as Air’s narrative is built around the why of the Jordan brand.
The film boasts many great performances that keep the film engaging and moving at a brisk pace. Chris Messina plays Jordan’s hot-headed agent, David Falk, and has a lot of hilarious interactions with Sonny during negotiations. Chris Tucker's portrayal of the now VP of Sports Marketing for the Jordan brand Howard White guides Sonny’s character to approach things differently. Affleck and Damon work off each other well in their scenes together – where Affleck toes the line between Knight’s essentialness and the need to be corporate.
Jason Bateman has a levelheadedness to the role of Nike’s standardized marketing manager Rob Strasser. There’s a particular moment in the film where Rob expresses to Sonny how much is on the line with this Jordan play. Sonny’s head is in the clouds with eternal optimism – but when jobs are on the line, there’s a limit to that.
Damon can wrestle with that fight on screen as a scrappy person who wants to think outside the box. Air is most successful when Michael’s mother, Delores (Viola Davis), enters the fold. From there, it’s not only about this huge corporation looking for the next athlete to make tons of money off of. It balances the need for athletes to have equity in these products, and Davis's very effective monologue gets this point across.
After all, the sneaker is an industry where white men are in high positions making the bulk of their money off Black athletes' artistry. Air could have just been a story where many executives worked tirelessly to bring in the greatest player ever to lace up a pair of their brand (it is someone). However, the balance of that real-world brevity gives this film the extra push to go forward.
We are all well aware of the aura of Michael Jordan and the imprint he’s left on the game and apparel. Air states this a lot – despite that, it doesn't get caught up in the minutia of contracts and legalities. It centers the people as the story's hook and works to considerable effect.