Air (2023): big business, bare Jordan | Review

Legs and Nike shoes just visible as a basketball player leaps for a shot

How do you turn a billion-dollar corporate behemoth into the underdog? You can’t – but that doesn’t stop business biopic Air from having a go in this masterclass of myth-making.

Ben Affleck, Matt Damon movie Air takes us back to 1984, to the time a plucky little sporting goods company called Nike faced its do-or-die moment. Well, kinda.

Having bootstrapped its way to a multi-million dollar income, Nike became a publicly traded company in 1980. Then, in 1984, it posted its first ever losses: earnings were down almost a third.

Nike was losing market share in athletic shoes to the likes of Adidas, Converse and even newcomer Reebok. That year, Nike’s Chief Executive Philip Knight penned a note to shareholders: “Mr Orwell was right. 1984 has been a tough year.”

Actually, Air gives this nugget of backstory to marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman). His speech to a bunch of shoe-gazing salesmen sets out the movie’s stall as a tale of a scrappy underdog driven not by money, but by heart and vision:

“Sales are down, our growth is down. But this company is about who we really are when we are down for the count.”

Lay-offs – not to mention public disgrace – are on the cards. Then marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) has a brainwave: snag up-and-coming basketball player Michael Jordan for their next shoe partnership. There’s just one problem. Michel Jordan doesn’t do Nike.

Whose story does Air tell?

Air isn’t about Michael Jordan, though. It’s not even really about Air Jordan, the iconic shoe line that bears his name.

Instead, it’s a romanticised history of one of the world’s biggest brands – and the business deal that changed the fortunes of everyone involved.

Now, if you’re worn down by the brandification of modern life – endless ads online, on the street and on TV – Air may well stick in your craw. It’s one heck of a story, but it’s also the mother lode of product placement.

The company’s mission statement (along with copious shots of its parking lot, for some reason) features heavily in this courtship. With shades of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Nike’s infamous manifesto urges employees to “live off the land”, and names ‘n’ shames bureaucracy as a killer.

For all his bare-foot yoga posing, however, Nike co-founder Philip Knight (Ben Affleck) puts business first. Sonny Vaccaro, in stark contrast, is a podgy-but-punk-rock visionary. When others don’t back his dream, he defies protocol to contact the Jordan family directly.

Flying out to North Carolina reveals a whole other level of impossible, though. Adidas and Converse have bigger budgets, plus the street and sporting credibility that matters to Michael. Michael’s mother, moreover, is no pushover.

Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) is quietly but fiercely protective of her family; her role as a woman who won’t bow to the status quo is particularly memorable. And, in a film dominated by curiously un-athletic white men, she lends the story a greater depth and significance beyond the corporate bottom line.

What’s the bottom line?

Air may be grounded in history, but it’s tight-lipped about just how contested that history is. Read articles published before the film’s publicity drive, and you’ll come away thinking everyone and their dog was responsible for bringing “the greatest basketball player of all time” to the Nike stable.

You’ll read Rob Strasser and Peter Moore masterminded the deal. Others credit Jordan’s agent, David Falk. Jordan himself names Olympic coach George Raveling.

While Sonny once crowned himself “the savior of Nike”, Air is clearly more of an ensemble deal. This stretches to including Howard White (Chris Tucker), plus a more central role for Deloris. Raveling’s part, however, is a mere footnote that doesn’t live up to Jordan’s telling of it.

Ultimately, this makes the hope and optimism of Air that of corporate America. Here, that’s a bunch of guys whose hearts flutter for dollars and cents more than sport for its own sake, and certainly not for the fashion and aspirations of kids in playgrounds and on basketball courts.

An 80s state of mind

Air brims with 80s nostalgia, from its vast trove of on-screen memorabilia, to its MTV-stylings. The movie also nods knowingly at product lore, from the grim origins of “Just Do It” to rumours that Adidas was an acronym for “All Day I Dream About Sex”.

Honestly, it’s a lot of fun – but that doesn’t change the fact that Air asks us to believe not in basketball, but men in suits.

Protagonist Sonny lives and breathes b-ball, but there’s nothing else to him: even Moneyball’s Billy Beane was fighting for his kid as much as the league. And unlike the understated but gut-wrenching emotion of Good Will Hunting, Air’s biggest speeches about belief and destiny feel … well, confected.

Where Air really excels is as a bona fide 80s movie, complete with banging soundtrack, self-belief and corporate shenanigans. There’s very little actual sport, which you could say makes it more accessible to a wider audience … Field of Dreams would like a word, though.

Most notably, there’s no Michael Jordan. Director Ben Affleck has said including the character in full view would risk disrupting the story, because no one else could ever play Jordan.

Fitting tribute, maybe, but with those other marginalised voices, it leaves the film lop-sided. Still, at least that marginalisation makes Deloris’s pushback against the corporate and cultural exploitation of Black American talent even more powerful.

Ultimately, though, Air’s telling of the Nike story through corporate-minded and deeply uncool characters requires the same suspension of disbelief that Jordan would have had to overcome in ’84.

Turning the brand into a plausible underdog means – for starters – slashing Jordan’s deal down to $250,000 (in reality, $2.5m over 5 years). But the end result paints Nike so much of a gutsy, principled start-up, it’ll leave you all but blinded by their halo.

Air (2023), directed by Ben Affleck

What to read or watch next
  • Good Will Hunting (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck)
  • Field of Dreams (sport)
  • Moneyball (sport, underdogs)
  • Working Girl, The Secret of My Success (80s corporate comedies)
  • Pepsi, Where’s My Jet (documentary, big brands and pop culture)

Picture credit: Wallace Chuck