For a movie that is about Michael Jordan, the first thing you notice is that you don’t see Michael Jordan. Sure, there are a few moments of the real Jordan in quick news clips, but as a character he is deliberately just off camera, or you only see his back. Air is instead a film about the machine of his handlers, managers, and immediate family… plus those who want a piece of his celebrity (in this case, the folks at Nike). The public knows the basketball star, but don’t know those that elevated him. Or those, it could definitely be argued, that HE elevated.
Taking place in 1984 (which is given its own opening-credit montage of MTV, Reagan, Rubik’s Cubes, Macintosh computers, “Where’s the beef?” ads, etc), Air profiles Nike’s courtship of just-out-of-college basketball star Michael Jordan before he set foot on an NBA court. In an era where star players wore shoe brands like Converse or Adidas, Nike (known at the time mainly for running shoes) struggled to get a piece of the basketball shoe market. Sonny Vaccaro (played by the always-reliable everyman Matt Damon) is tasked with trying to lure some NBA players to represent the sorely struggling basketball branch of the company. His lightbulb moment (one that could very easily fail) is to court a single player, Michael Jordan, who had publicly stated he would never, ever go with Nike. The challenge is on.
What is essentially a movie about a marketing pitch, Air is surprisingly breezy and fun. After first convincing his very hesitant boss, Nike’s Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), to agree to put all of their bets on one out-of-their-league player, the rest of the team piles in to make the pitch happen: There’s the marketing guy Rob (Jason Bateman, with appealing shaggy 80s hair), the company rep Howard (Chris Tucker, toned down but charming), and shoe designer Peter (Matthew Maher, who absolutely, hilariously steals his scenes with his design intensity). On the other side, despite the bravado of Jordan’s manager (Chris Messina, whose colorful threats are howlers), the true power player for young Michael is of course his mom. Apparently, Michael Jordan himself requested EGOT Viola Davis to play his mother, and in her few scenes Davis unsurprisingly rules as Deloris Jordan. If this screenplay rings true, it is perhaps Deloris who changed the way endorsements work, not the men in the dog and pony show. They just had to agree with her demands.
Air moves along at a brisk clip, and in a way feels like a feel-good ad for Nike itself. It leans too heavily on 80s pop music to drive the story; literally each scene starts with another song, which becomes more distracting than propelling. (I found myself tracking the songs that were actually from other movie soundtracks, like Tangerine Dream’s Risky Business score, or some of the ubiquitous hits from Beverly Hills Cop and Miami Vice.) The movie works best when it doesn’t rely on 80s pop culture gimmicks and instead lets the great ensemble cast do the heavy lifting. Damon and Affleck, in particular, look like they are having a lot of fun, and perhaps more than a little bit of their real-life awe of Viola Davis reflects in the way their characters bow to her will.
As fun as it is, the most interesting facts of the whole deal are highlighted in the closing credit postscripts. This deal with Nike was groundbreaking in the world of celebrity endorsements, in particular athlete/product partnerships. Additionally, Michael Jordan’s unprecedented superstardom on the court helped catapult the NBA into the hugely successful financial juggernaut that it is today. If it weren’t for this deal, there wouldn’t be the modern fight for NCAA athletes to get a share of the profits of the marketing of their names. And who was a key figure in that NCAA lawsuit? None other than Air‘s other hero, Sonny Vaccaro, the man behind the perhaps the biggest product partnership in sports history.