Who exactly could get that excited about a movie about selling a shoe? Apparently, plenty of critics and audiences judging by the success of Air, the dramatization of the eventual formation and presentation for the first Air Jordan sneaker. It’s Amazon’s first original movie that they’ve given a theatrical release since 2019’s Late Night, and it proved a moderate success for a mid-range adult drama before debuting on its streaming service. I was intrigued by the creative pedigree, as I’ve been an ardent fan of Ben Affleck as a director, and the uniformly strong critical reviews, but I kept thinking, “It’s just a shoe.” It was hard for me to imagine getting that drawn into a drama about a bunch of guys trying to get Michael Jordan’s endorsement. I just couldn’t see the movie in this scenario. Now that I’ve actually watched Air, I can credit it as a well-written and well-acted movie about passionate people putting forward a presentation. That’s the movie, and while entertaining, it’s still hard for me to understand all the fuss.
It’s 1984 and Nike isn’t the market-leading trend-setting company that we think of today. They dominated the running world but few if any saw them as hip. They were struggling behind Adidas and Converse in popularity and cultural cache, and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) had tasked his basketball head of operations Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) with snagging endorsements from the new NBA rookies. Sonny wants to go all-in on just one athlete, a special case that Sonny thinks can revolutionize the game, and one that could propel Nike to the next level. But first he’ll have to convince Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), that this smaller company with its smaller reach is going to be the best fit for her son’s potential future earnings.
This is still a movie about a shoe, but it’s really a movie about people who are good at their jobs and trying to change a paradigm of thinking and the Way Things Are Done. I’ve seen it said that Air is “Moneyball for sneakerheads,” and that’s an apt comparison. It’s about a bunch of smart guys fighting for clout, a group of underdogs going up against the entrenched winners, but it’s really about passionate people trying to get others to recognize their passion. So it’s scene after scene of Sonny trying to break through and get others to understand why his way of thinking is going to be the best. It’s also structured entirely around the big presentation with the Jordans, with each stop at a competing shoe company as its own act break. It makes the movie feel very streamlined and focused. It allows moments for minor characters to get their own moment, to make it seem like there’s a larger world behind every scene. It makes the team feel more filled out, and as each person and artist comes together, it’s reminiscent of movies in general, about various talents coming together to put on a big show. With our hindsight already locked in before the opening credits, it’s got to be the journey that matters here, because we know the eventual coupling, so Air has to justify why the before time could be captivating. It’s engaging because it’s a story built upon underdogs and smart people getting to flex their smarts.
Of course, it’s also not too difficult to make someone look smart with the power of hindsight. This was one of the more maddening features of Aaron Sorkin’s frustrating HBO series, The Newsroom. The focus was on a TV show on a cable news network but it existed in our universe, covering the big stories from the recent past. Rather than providing insight into the struggles of journalists trying to break big stories and follow their leads, Sorkin’s show was his turn to rewrite the news, showing how the foolish journalists should have covered these major events. It was his condescending attempt to tell professionals how they should have done their jobs. However, he had the extreme benefit of 18 months or so of hindsight and seeing what was important and what was less so, which just made his critiques all the more condescending (“Why don’t you know all the things that I know from the future, stupid present people?”). I could do this myself, writing a story about a guy in the 1930s talking down to these people hoarding their gold and how they should, instead, invest in a burgeoning computer industry. It’s not hard to look smart when you have history already in your pocket. This is also the case with Sonny in Air, who says over and over how special Michael Jordan is, and we know this too with our personal hindsight, so it makes him look transcendent. However, there could be any number of guys in history that had a similar hunch about Sam Bowie, the player picked one spot ahead of Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft and whose career was cut short by rampant leg injuries. That could have happened to Jordan too. Sometimes the greatest athletes are the recipients of just horrible luck (look at Bo Jackson, a modern-day Greek God who could have been an all-timer in two sports).
Where Air glides is with its snappy dialogue and attention to its supporting cast, thanks to debut screenwriter Alex Convery. Despite my reservations on the subject matter, this is proof that a good writer can make any story compelling as long as they channel into the right universal elements. A movie about selling a shoe to a future billionaire becomes an underdog story and one about a group of middle-aged guys trying to live out their dreams by picking the right player to become their vicarious capitalistic dream. The side characters played by Chris Messina as a foul-mouthed agent, and Jason Batemen as an exec who mostly just wants to spend more time with his kids following a divorce, and Matthew Maher (Our Flag Means Death) as a lonely shoe designer, are welcomed and I enjoyed spending time with them all before the big decision. It’s pleasurable just to sit and listen to the conversational banter. If you can find a way to make characters debating the particulars of their industry and make it interesting regardless of industry, then that’s the sign of a good writer. There’s plenty of conflict thrumming throughout, like Sonny pushing to spend his entire department’s budget on one player rather than spreading the risk around, and the climax involves whether or not a billion-dollar company is willing to split some of its earnings with the athlete they’re making mega-million from. It was a first-of-its-kind deal that changed the industry, giving athletes more leverage and direct money for the use of their likenesses, and considering how integral Jordan was to the explosion of the NBA’s popularity, it was money well spent.
There’s no distinct directing flair from Affleck, as I think he recognizes the strengths of this script and how best to utilize them, which is to support his actors and give them space. The most noticeable directing feature is the repeated use of period-appropriate songs and archival footage, which might explain the movie’s staggering reported $90 million budget (for a shoe movie?). Affleck keeps things moving at a light-hearted tone but knows when to slow things down too.
Air is an amusing drama with good performances and good writing and direction that understands how best to hone both of those selling points. It’s very streamlined while still feeling developed, and it manages to make a decades-old shoe deal feel interesting in 2023. I enjoyed it but I would have enjoyed this cast in just about anything, and I feel like the screenwriter and Affleck as a director have better stories on their docket waiting. It’s an enjoyable and intelligent drama with crackling good dialogue. It’s a solid movie but I guess I won’t ever understand the adoration it received, and that’s fine. Air proves you can indeed tell a compelling movie about a shoe deal. There you have it. Now back to that chicken/egg dilemma.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on May 15, 2023, in 2023 Movies and tagged ben affleck, chris messina, jason bateman, matt damon, period film, sports, true-life, viola davis. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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