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Air: Ben Affleck’s Latest Looks at how the Air Jordan Shoe Line Came to Exist


Air preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

Air prioritises themes of humanity ahead of corporate gain to create a more meaningful story of self-actualisation”

There’s no shortage of basketball related underdog movies that take a disorganised or poorly managed team and transform them into greatness, but an underdog story about the basketball division of the world’s largest sports brand? Now that seems a bit ostentatious. But Ben Affleck’s Air is more than simply another film about an organisation spouting how great they are or tooting their own horn. Air speaks to a moment in history that revolutionised sports marketing and changed the economics around the value of sports stars to any given brand.

More specifically, it was Nike’s ground-breaking shoe deal in 1984 with then rookie, Michael Jordan, that shaped the commodification of athletes as we know it. And while the story of Jordan and Nike’s partnership is a short Wikipedia search away, Affleck’s film finds meaning through the people that helped makes this deal happen.

The people in question are Nike CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) who put the money for the deal forward; Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a basketball punter and expert who used his hunch to convince himself and his higher ups that Jordan should be the sole target of their basketball budget; and his colleagues Howard White (Chris Tucker), Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans).

The film follows the group as they desperately try to sign basketball talent to their shoe line while facing the prospect of having their whole division closed down. It’s Sonny, however, who is the driving force, risking his job just like the bets he makes through some knowledge and a lot of instinct, that forces the group to think bigger; Jordan’s name would look great, but more successful competitors, Adidas and Converse, also have their sights set on him.


Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan in AIR.

But it really is through Sonny and his continued pursuit of Jordan, namely through his interactions with his mother Deloris (Viola Davis), where Air is at its best. There’s a pleasure in seeing the more human side of what are at the end of the day, corporate transactions. Damon has quickly become the go-to actor for passionate characters that make projects happen, like his performance as Carroll Shelby in Ford v Ferrari (2019). Davis on the other hand commands each scene through her unwavering gravitas like in Woman King (2022). When the duo are on-screen together, Air is at its most moving and best, as the two work towards the same goal — putting Jordan in a position that will allow him and those around him, to succeed.

It’s easy for biographical dramas to fall into the trap of simply rehashing known events which can often lead to a cumbersome viewing experience. The better ones, like Moneyball (2011) or Ford v Ferrari go a step further by exploring the tussle between winning and succeeding, with the former being a temporary feeling but the latter being built on trust in yourself, and in the people around you. It’s in part why Air works because Affleck weaves in more human themes to give weight to the process and to make the struggle worth fighting for.

Sonny continually pushes past this resignation to comfort that Nike has taken where they’ve become averse to taking risks, and he often reminds Phil that it’s risk that built this company. Affleck captures this attitude soundly, often cutting to each of Nike’s guiding principles like “we’re on offense, all the time,” to create narrative momentum. In this way the shortcomings of the film aren’t as noticeable like the predictable dialogue, drab production design and lack of moving parts (there’s a lot of talking). It really is the ensemble and this snappy pacing that allows, at its simplest, a story about signing a contract, worth investing time in.

Air opens nationally from the 5th of April, 2023.


Arnel Duracak

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