Director – Ben Affleck – 2023 – US – Cert. 15 – 112m
In 1984, a Nike executive lifts the company out of its financial rut by building a line of running shoes around an unknown basketball player named Michael Jordan – out in UK cinemas on Wednesday, April 5th
A curious combination of sports movie and corporate drama, this retells the story of how, in 1984, the failing Nike corporation managed to successfully reinvent itself by signing a sponsorship deal with the then-unknown basketball player Michael Jordan and building a product line of running shoes around him. Jordan would go on to become a huge cultural icon in the US and Nike a hugely profitable multinational, due in no small part to its Air Jordan running shoes, which the player endorsed.
This is a Warner Bros. movie and that Studio already has a long-standing connection with Michael Jordan through Space Jam (Joe Pytka, 1996), the live action / animation composite feature that combined basketball with Looney Tunes characters and spawned a sequel in 2021. Air isn’t a Michael Jordan film as such: as a character, he barely appears, but there’s a sense that he’s at the centre of the events portrayed as everything here revolves around him. That said, the two main players in the drama are, arguably, Sonny Vaccaro (a bit-between-the-teeth Matt Damon) and Michael’s mother Deloris (a typically feisty Viola Davis).
It’s also worth pointing out that Britain is not the US, and basketball here is nothing like as popular as it is there, so the film may find it harder to find an audience on this side of the Atlantic.
Enthusiastic basketball expert and Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) has known Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) since the latter was an adventurous, fledgling entrepreneur selling running shoes out of the back of his car. However, those heady days are long gone, with Phil now a company head burdened with corporate responsibility, tending to err towards the conservative in his decisions and strategy.
Charged with finding professional NBA basketball players as sponsors to represent the company’s footwear range, Sonny has retained his idealism, to the annoyance of many of his colleagues who he consistently calls out for lack of innovative strategy thanks to their poor knowledge of the sport. This is not the traditional way to get ahead in the corporate world, and Sonny’s days in the company may be numbered.
Although the corporate plan is to sign two or three players, Sonny doesn’t believe any of the possible candidates have what the company needs except one, an unknown player named Michael Jordan who is already all but signed to successful, rival company Adidas and who would be unobtainable by Nike unless they blow their entire budget on this one player, a highly risky strategy to say the least. Sonny, however, won’t be deterred.
Against the advice of Jordan’s ruthless and savvy agent David Falk (Chris Messina), with whom Sonny’s only interaction takes place via telephone, he drives across country (to the strains of Big Country’s 1983 song In A Big Country – full marks to whoever was responsible for putting that in there) for an unsolicited doorstep meeting with Michael’s mother Deloris who is the one who makes all the decisions regarding her son’s career. He predicts for her the way meetings with Adidas and other companies will go in an attempt to get her to visit Nike if his predictions turn out to be accurate and look at what the company he represents can uniquely offer her son. His is a crazy pitch which breaks all the business rules – but for that very reason, it might just succeed.
This being based on historical events, the audience knows the outcome: the pitch did succeed, and Jordan signed with Nike. Not without hurdles, though – there’s a great scene towards the end where Sonny is phoned by Doloris, which he assumes will be to tell him she’s not going to sign, and she says to him something to the effect of, she is about to sign, although there’s just one detail so small it’s probably just an oversight… and then proceeds to make a demand that will forever change the face of sports endorsement negotiation, throwing Sonny into a place where he, and ultimately Knight as the head of Nike, must make a tough decision.
The pleasures of this film therefore lie not in the known outcome, but in the seemingly impossible route in getting there. As well as convincing Knight initially, Sonny also has to sell the idea to disbelieving marketing man Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and more sympathetic, former basketball player Howard White (perfectly cast, motormouth comedian Chris Tucker here dialling his trademark comic intensity down to just the right degree) and to contend with Deloris’ considerable negotiating skills.
As a welcome bonus, the cast includes Peter Moore (Matthew Maher from Funny Pages, Owen Kline, 2022) as the geeky shoe designer, who makes the role completely his own.
Nike today is a huge corporate concern, and you could argue that the whole thing is a glorified piece of Nike product placement. A sole throwaway line of dialogue about shoe manufacture and sweatshops abroad is the only hint in the movie at a less sympathetic view of Nike that can be found elsewhere, for instance, in Naomi Klein’s anti-branding apologetic No Logo. And for a very different view of Phil Knight, look no further than the documentary Claydream (Marq Evans, 2021), which details how Knight took over Will Vinton’s animation studio and what happened to Vinton as a result.
That said, as a lightweight multiplex programmer, Affleck’s film is nicely paced and pushes all the right buttons to provide the audience with an enjoyable enough ride. Damon projects just the right mixture of idealism and determination to carry the film, with winsome bit parts from Davis (who is particularly good), Tucker and the less familiar Maher. It’s undeniably a compelling story and the sort of film that, if you found yourself spending the best part of two hours watching it, you wouldn’t mind. But you might like to couple that with finding out a bit more about the company portrayed so lovingly here.
Air is out in cinemas in the UK on Wednesday, April 5th