Ben Affleck Goes Heavy on ’80s Nostalgia with ‘Air’
“Where’s the beef?” That iconic Wendy’s TV commercial featuring Clara Peller is but one of the many references flashed during the opening montage designed to ensure every viewer understands we are headed back to 1984. Yes, it’s been nearly 40 years since Michael Jordan was drafted third overall by the Chicago Bulls. An important point to make is that this is only tangentially a basketball movie, and it’s certainly not a Michael Jordan profile. Space Jam (1996) had more basketball and more Jordan than this one.
Instead, this is a rare business movie. Specifically, the story of how one decision by Nike not only saved their basketball shoe division but also revolutionized the entire sports shoe market and the relationship between shoe manufacturers and athletes at all levels, though the focus here is the NBA.
Chicago native Alex Convery’s script (his first feature film) had long been on Hollywood’s blacklist of screenplays, and it wasn’t until lifelong friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon got involved that the project gained legs. The two buddies previously won an Oscar for their Good Will Hunting (1997) screenplay, and Affleck won the Best Picture Oscar for Argo (2012). This time, in addition to their script tweaks, Affleck appears as Nike CEO Phil Knight (he of the grape Porsche), while Damon stars as Nike recruiting expert, Sonny Vaccaro.
At this point in 1984, Nike has recently gone public, having built their reputation on running shoes. However, the basketball division has never really succeeded due to the dominance of Converse and Adidas. In fact, Vaccaro has been warned by Knight that the division could be shut down if this year’s budget isn’t turned into a pot of gold.
Vaccaro, a recognized guru in scouting basketball talent, seems to be working from a point of desperation, or perhaps it’s excitement when he becomes obsessed with signing Michael Jordan. Hilarious and profane exchanges with Jordan’s powerhouse agent, David Falk (Chris Messina) offer little hope, so Vaccaro sees only one chance at success – a personal visit to the Jordan home in North Carolina. This is typically a taboo move and one that causes grief for Vaccaro from all sides.
It’s at this initial meeting with Jordan’s parents, Deloris (EGOT Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon, also Ms. Davis’ real-life husband) that the door cracks for Vaccaro due to his sincerity and idealism. The battle at the corporate office finds Phil Knight reminding Vaccaro who’s in charge, Vaccaro reminding Knight of the risk-taking that built the company, and marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) doing what he can to inject rational thought while hoping to keep his job.
As the big presentation approaches, it’s shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) who pulls a rabbit out of the hat with his design and name for the shoe. Maher is fabulously awkward during his scene-stealing. There has always been conflict on who came up with “Air Jordan,” Moore or Falk, and the film handles this admirably.
Damon gets a few scenes to rattle off big moments of dialogue, but none matches his peak inspirational soliloquy during the presentation. And this is despite the rapid-fire musings of Chris Tucker. Tucker, in a rare big-screen appearance, plays Howard White, who would become Jordan’s personal handler (and friend) for Nike over the years. As you might guess, it’s the always terrific Viola Davis who outshines everyone. Her final phone call with Vaccaro is a thing of beauty and a moment that will likely find her in awards discussion at year-end.
Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer (and 10-time nominee) Robert Richardson finds the perfect throwback look for the film, while costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones captures the frumpy look of Vaccaro and the arrogance of Knight and Falk. The only real weakness here stems from director Affleck’s insistence on over-doing the “remember 1984” moments with music and cultural references, including cracks at the expense of Kurt Rambis and the late Mel Turpin.
No real suspense exists since the entire world knows Jordan signed with Nike, but risk-taking in business is referenced numerous times. While many kids truly dreamed of being like Mike, many Business majors and CEOs dreamed of being like Knight. The best comparison here is probably Moneyball (2011), since at its core, this is the story of an underdog.