AIR Review: An Unapologetic Ode to Corporate America
By 1984, Nike, the global shoe retailer, had seen sales balloon to almost $1B, a sign of remarkable growth for a company founded by Phil Knight, then and now the CEO, selling running shoes out of his car two decades earlier. Nike, however, was at a virtual crossroads, repeatedly failing to increase its market share against its two, more established competitors, Converse and Adidas.
The basketball division found itself floundering amidst stagnant sales and a seemingly saturated market, the epitome of uncool, as unattractive to NBA players as a no-name, off-the-shelf brand. In contrast, Adidas, the preferred sneaker/tracksuit brand for African-American rappers and hip-hop culture, signified the height of coolness.
Those economic circumstances form the backdrop for Ben Affleck's (Live By Night, Argo, The Town, Gone Baby Gone) latest directing turn, Air, an earnest, uncritical celebration of Nike and its brand. Affleck doubles up as the slightly daft, egotistical Knight, all but paralyzed from action by an unseen, profit-driven corporate board, but it’s Affleck’s longtime friend and occasional filmmaking partner, Matt Damon, who takes center stage in Air as the real-life Sonny Vaccaro, a paunchy, middled-aged marketing executive who, in a flash of industry-shaking insight, sees Nike’s future not just in basketball shoes, but in a rookie out of North Carolina, Michael Jordan (often mentioned, but rarely seen).
Working from Alex Convery’s structurally sound, if easily digestible, screenplay, Affleck introduces Vaccaro as a risk-taker, a literal gambler who makes frequent stops in Vegas to and from business trips. His all-or-nothing mindset might have served him well, but a long dry spell, not to mention a risk-averse corporate structure, makes it all but impossible for him to translate his instincts about Jordan’s future in the NBA (not just a baller or winner, but an all-timer) into tangible results. Everywhere Vaccaro turns he meets resistance, first from Knight, then from a senior marketing executive (and his boss), Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and Jordan’s clingy, gatekeeping agent, David Falk (Chris Messina).
Falk refuses to let Vaccaro meet or even talk to the Jordan family, necessitating a protocol-breaking move (i.e., circumventing Falk entirely) that could easily backfire and leave Nike on the outside looking in. Vaccaro, though, is nothing if not persistent — persistence being one of his many qualities and a key theme in Air — eventually making face-to-face contact with Jordan’s business-savvy mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), and through a mix of real talk and flattery, convincing her to give Nike a chance to present the Jordan family with their ideas and plans for the younger Jordan’s future.
At least until that point story-wise, Air unfolds like a typical corporate drama. Once it becomes clear, however, that Vaccaro’s initial gamble pays off and the Jordans will visit Nike HQ in Beaverton, Oregon, Air increases the modest stakes, adds an inflexible deadline, and pushes the characters to make economic life-or-death decisions based on guesses, feelings, and ego. Relatively unsung shoe designer, Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), gets a spotlight scene, not only creating the groundbreaking Air Jordan 1, but naming it too. For Moore, the Air Jordan 1 represents the end point of a lifetime spent seeking a Platonic ideal in shoe wear.
As cornball as that scene sounds (and it does sound that way), Affleck treats Moore’s gnomic pronouncements with unironic solemnity and gravity, a sign Affleck and company see them similarly. Only a related scene involving Strasser and Vaccaro, the former concretizing the real risks involved to employees of Nike’s basketball division, conveys the real-world stakes of the situation.
Failure means the end of the division and the loss of employment for dozens, if not hundreds, of employees. It’s the first time Vaccaro realizes the enormity of the risk involved, adding a layer of pressure and a sense of urgency otherwise missing from the last 30-40 minutes.
Decades later, the outcome of those negotiations might seem like an obvious, if not foregone, conclusion. Air attempts to argue otherwise. Ultimately, it wasn’t Moore’s singular shoe or the sum of the initial contract, but Deloris, working alone or in tandem with an unseen business advisor, who alters Nike’s fortunes along with her son’s and her own for the better, arguing for a revenue-generating plan (a fixed amount per shoe) that revolutionized the industry and, at least in one regard, shifted the profits from a corporation and its shareholders to the professional athletes whose labor created those profits in the first place. Viva labor rights.
Air opens Wednesday, April 5 in movie theaters across North America, via Amazon Studios.