Ben Affleck’s Air is not a biopic, or at least, it’s not the kind of biopic that we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s an early rider of a wave of fictionalized movies based on real brands (including the upcoming Flamin’ Hot and Blackberry movies, as well as the currently streaming Tetris) that may become the new normal. But Air, in its telling of Michael Jordan’s head-spinningly lucrative venture with Nike to launch the Air Jordan sneaker line, feels like a biopic in terms of its investment in “greatness” and a guarantee of a happy ending before a single ass hits a theater seat. (Air is out now.)
To the credit of everyone involved, that ending—one that finds Jordan eventually signing with Nike, an underdog brand when it approached the then-rookie basketball star in 1984—feels well earned. It was the product of Nike exec Sonny Vaccaro’s ability to predict the future in terms of Jordan’s star power and market his virtuosity via sportswear. “I don’t want to sign three players. I want to sign one. I want to sign him,” says Matt Damon’s Vaccaro during one of several impassioned speeches he nails in Air. “We build a shoe line around just him. We tap into something deeper, into the player’s identity, into that.” We know where this is headed, and yet the tension and excitement that builds as Vaccaro nails down the deal is testament to Affleck’s directorial aptitude. Air is a zippy, quippy, pop-culture obsessed movie (it’s really more about the culture of sports than sports themselves) that will have people cheering for visionary white male capitalists.
Vaccaro was ultimately backed by, after considerable debate, his supervisor Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), co-worker Howard White (Chris Tucker), and Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck). As Knight, whose Buddhist affectations are undercut by his purple Porsche, Affleck effectively memes himself, running around in a curly wig, sometimes in douchey Oakleys and a track suit. Affleck is someone who understands the power of his own image. One shot finds his Knight barefoot in his office with his feet up on his desk—a knock-off Tarantino setup that Affleck takes a step further than Tarantino ever did by exploiting himself.
Convincing Jordan to sign with Nike while he was being courted by then-more successful brands Adidas and Converse was no easy feat. Jordan wanted nothing to do with Nike, and then there was the extra layer of resistance that was his business-handling mother, Deloris Jordan (played here by Viola Davis, my woman king). Damon’s Vaccaro chips away at her resistance to even meeting with Nike by pestering: “I don’t take no for an answer, and I think your son should be endorsed by someone of that mindset,” he explains. He has a point. In a particularly stern, often terse showing, Davis is as watchable as ever, as is just about everyone involved.
Air is just primo content, from the predictable yet crowd-pleasing arc to the fashionable, Sorkin-esque rat-a-tat of sarcastic dialogue (Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent: “When you go around me, you make me look ineffectual. And if you end up signing him, it makes me look irrelevant. Now, that’s the worst thing you can do to an agent”; Vaccaro: “Look, if your irrelevance is becoming self-evident to your client, I don’t see how that’s my fault.”). The soundtrack is full of obvious ‘80s selections (Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”) and some less obvious ones (Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Ain’t Nobody”). This is meat-and-potatoes cinema, but the cut is of the highest quality and the potatoes are fried to perfection.
Affleck’s most daring choice as a filmmaker is to refrain from portraying Jordan at all. We see him only from the back and in close-ups so extreme and out of focus, he’s incognito. He remains silent during meetings. To CBS Sunday Morning, Affleck explained this decision: “This is a movie about an icon, about somebody who’s so meaningful that the minute I show you somebody and tell you, ‘Hey, that’s Michael Jordan,’ you’re just going to know it isn’t.” That’s probably true, though he risked the conscious obscuring being just as distracting. But it isn’t, and a big part of that has to do with this movie being more about Michael Jordan the idea than it is Michael Jordan the person. This player’s deal with Nike opened the door for athletes to receive percentages of grosses from the merchandise that bore their name. It’s played in the movie like the utmost triumph, due in no small part to the iron-willed Deloris’ insistence.
Of course, what it means practically is that it paved the way for the rich to get richer—in a on-screen postscript before the credits, we read that Jordan makes some $400 million annually in passive income as a result of his Air Jordans deal. This is the ultimate display of morality in a movie brought to you by Amazon Studios. Yay?