While discussing the Nike-inspired film Air with my friend and colleague Mitch Ringenberg, we found ourselves listing a slew of other recent and upcoming company- and product-based movies and series including Tetris, BlackBerry, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, etc.
Are these movies and shows simply celebrations of capitalism? Although it comes uncomfortably close to being as such, Air ultimately transcends the product at its center by showing that “a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.” (The film opens in wide theatrical release Wednesday ahead of eventual availability on Amazon Prime Video.)
The film feeds our product-based nostalgia right away with an archival montage of Wheaties commercials, Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” ads, Ridley Scott’s cinematic Macintosh commercial, scenes from Ghostbusters, etc. — establishing the media-saturated landscape of 1984’s America. It cleverly cuts to the humbler grassroots marketing efforts of Nike’s basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who’s introduced handing out sneakers and patting players’ backs at a high-school game.
The players are Sonny’s top priority, and he wants to produce a shoe they’re proud to wear — a shoe worthy of their talent. How he comes up with his big idea is best left for viewers to discover, but he arrives at the concept of devoting the Nike basketball division’s entire budget to developing a shoe line around rising rookie Michael Jordan — a shoe representative of Jordan’s power on the court. Unfortunately, like most players, Jordan favors Nike’s competitors, Adidas and Converse. So, Sonny and his colleagues embark upon a wild goose chase to win over the soon-to-be all-star.
At this point, you might think, “Who cares?” That’s a valid question, especially considering that Air aims to keep you emotionally invested in the shoe companies’ battle for Jordan while he requests ridiculous sums and perks to endorse their products. The film earns our affection by focusing on how Jordan’s endorsement of Nike isn’t merely a monetary win but also a symbolic achievement, creating a product that will immortalize him and inspire generations to come. We all know the shoe’s iconic emblem of Jordan soaring through the air. It’s not just an image of athletic ability; it’s a symbol of power that compels us to excel in any field.
Sure, the film nearly comes across as an off-putting glorification of our grind-and-hustle culture. Fortunately, it reins itself in with a poignant moment between Sonny and Nike marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), who points out how Sonny’s reckless behavior is putting not only professional pursuits but personal lives at risk. As in sports, business isn’t about scoring a slam dunk — it’s about looking out for your team and the people you go home to at the end of the day.
The importance of family is clearest in Viola Davis’ quietly towering performance as Jordan’s mother, Deloris. When talking about her son, she chooses her words carefully, ensuring they measure up to the massive weight of his potential as well as her love and concern for him.
As Sonny, Damon effectively captures a down-to-earth dreamer’s urge to be bold yet delicate with their actions.
Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, who also directed) is all about handling things delicately, and Affleck finds comedic tension between him and Sonny. From the filmmaking side, Affleck visualizes the difference between them in the frame, showing Knight standing tall in candy-colored tracksuits while Sonny sweats and slouches in his tucked-in polos.
Watching Affleck and Damon talk about risk versus reward is moving given their real-life history as lifelong friends and struggling actors who paved their own way together and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay around this time 25 years ago. Given that history alone, Air earns its sentimentality.
This film is also among Affleck’s stronger directorial efforts. It’s arguably his most stylish, with vibrant production design from François Audouy, arresting cinematography by Robert Richardson and a transporting soundtrack courtesy of music supervisor Andrea von Foerster. In addition to the lead performances, Affleck draws energetically comedic turns from Matthew Maher as Nike’s shoe designer, Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent and Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White.
A film about a shoe certainly doesn’t seem all that appealing to mass audiences. Air makes it work by focusing on the people behind the product.