By Marc S. Sanders
Pop culture for me began in the early 1980s. Burger King had Star Wars glasses to collect. Everyone was running to the theatres to see Beverly Hills Cop. Ray Parker Jr asked us who we were gonna call, and a little old lady wanted to know “Where’s The Beef?”
Apparently, basketball was big too. I wouldn’t know. I only followed sports once in a blue moon. However, I wanted the high-top sneakers that all the guys were wearing, the Nike Air Jordans. Couldn’t make a free throw shot to save myself, but I explained to my mom that I just had to wear the shoes. I owned two pair – one was charcoal and white and the other were black and blue. Beautiful accessories to go with my Levi jeans, Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and my Member’s Only jacket.
All of these memories flooded back to me as I watched Ben Affleck’s latest directorial production called Air. The film recaps how Nike, a distant leading third place sneaker brand in the USA, signed the eventual greatest basketball player to ever perform on an NBA court, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, as the celebrity face for its flagship shoe that still reigns supreme today, over forty years later. Air is not so much a sports movie, as it is that rare breed of film hardly touched upon. Air is an inspirational, stand up and cheer success story of capitalism and materialism.
The year is 1984. Nike’s headquarters reside in the sleepy state of Oregon. Affleck’s longtime friend Matt Damon portrays Sonny Vacarro, an out of shape Vice President of Marketing for Nike who is tagged with finding the next flash in the pan basketball star to sponsor their shoes. Sonny can recite statistics and facts about any past or present player in the league verbatim. He also has a knack for recognizing the potential of up-and-coming stars fresh out of high school and college. Nothing seems interesting, however. Sonny religiously watches videotapes of game footage and one night it occurs to him that a rookie kid named Michael Jordan is the answer to Nike’s stagnant profit and loss statements.
Sonny’s got challenges to overcome though, like convincing his fellow executives played by Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker to jump on his campaign. He also needs to get Phil Knight (Nike’s CEO, played by a bearded and often barefoot Affleck) to invest their entire $250,000 budget in the faith of one player with no proven track record, as opposed to spending the money on multiple players. It’s like playing roulette with everything on Red 23. Perhaps the hardest obstacle will be swaying Mr. Jordan’s tough and intuitive mother, Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis, a clear front runner for Best Supporting Actress), to go with this company, as opposed to Adidas and Converse who seemingly can provide for any of her son’s requests, including a shiny red Mercedes coupe on top of any dollar figure imaginable.
Ben Affleck’s direction, with Alex Convery’s script, works so well because it operates on industry. Vaccaro not only travels unexpectedly to the Jordans’ home in North Carolina, but he’s constantly working the phone on Michael Jordan’s ball busting, slick and foul-mouthed sports agent (Chris Messina giving a hilarious performance worthy of a nomination as well.). The negotiations these guys communicate with hinges on how descriptively ugly they can be with their dialogue and tete a tete cursing. Every conversation has to end with that much more of a dramatic hang-up. Sonny also must take the elevator down to the design center basement, and delegate a quirky kind of guy (Peter Moore, played by Matthew Maher) with designing a shoe that stands above anything ever seen before.
There’s a process to how to some of the most well recognized manufactured goods in the North American continent came to be and continue to circulate for decades on end. It could be Coca Cola, or Ray Ban sunglasses or Ford Mustangs or Nike Air Jordans. Matt Damon is the energetic thread that is connected to every ingredient and participant responsible for this finished product.
Outside of the operation is the quiet Deloris Jordan protecting the best interests and image of her talented son. She will ensure he is not taken for granted and most importantly he will be the one credited for every consumer who puts a pair of Air Jordan shoes on their feet.
In less than two hours, Ben Affleck uses Convery’s script with perfect efficiency and time devoted to a passion for Sonny Vaccaro and a careful process of examination by Deloris Jordan. Matt Damon and Viola Davis are so much in tune with their respective roles. In fact, the whole picture is perfectly cast.
This is a story that takes place in boring offices and cubicles. Yet, the film comes alive with a culturally relevant soundtrack of pop culture music of its specific year, 1984, when life for middle class families seemed easier following an exhausting Vietnam War and an assurance of politics from a US President who held office for most of the decade. People went to the movies in the summertime. They watched Dallas and Miami Vice on Friday nights. Teens wore the one glitter glove on their hand as a salute to Michael Jackson. Kids collected Care Bears, He-Man toys, and Garbage Pail Kids cards, and they saved up their money to emulate a basketball superstar by wearing his brand name shoes.
Too often films reflect back on business and industry that has betrayed the buyers and investors. Films like The Big Short and a few interpretations of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme come to mind. I’m waiting for the movie that will focus on one of the greatest foul ups in business history, New Coke. Air reminds me that we don’t have to always embrace the tragedies of business operations by focusing on where it has failed us time and again.
Nike Air Jordans are an expensive epitome of materialistic need. Yet, business is also about giving consumers what they want, and if that is done, then its success spreads to prosperity and financial security for many parties throughout the nation and the world. Air is a film that should be shown to business majors in universities. It teaches the art of risk, passion and confidence when taking on an investment and holding on to who can be each generation’s next hero.
Air is a standout film, and I’ll accept the risk of declaring it one of the best films of 2023.