Air is truly a film for our times. Essentially a two-hour advertisement for Nike, it is being acclaimed as stunning entertainment, and a potential “movie of the year”. We’ve come a long way from 1999, when Naomi Klein’s No Logo made the case against Nike and other big brands as shameless exploiters of the developing world. In Air, Nike is the all-American underdog that triumphs over the big brands – the little guy that beats overwhelming odds to become a major player.
Ben Affleck, who has directed and starred in the film, swears there was no collusion with Nike, but considerable consultation with Michael Jordan, the legendary basketballer, who proved crucial to the company’s change of fortunes. If this is the case, Air must be the greatest marketing gift ever handed to a multinational corporation.
It’s decidedly odd that in a world in which people have traumas about their pronouns, everyone seems so happy to have a huge company portrayed in the most lovable, heroic light. Once upon a time lefties were concerned about the working classes, nowadays it’s all about race and gender. Capitalism gets a free pass so long as it makes the right noises about ‘inclusiveness’.
There is only one moment in this film that hints at an awareness of Nike’s labour practices of the 1980s, when they were reputedly paying workers 14 cents a day in Indonesian sweat shops. It’s a throwaway line from Jason Bateman, playing marketing executive, Rob Strasser, who wonders aloud if he’s OK with the company’s Asian operations – but quickly buries his scruples.
That concludes my burst of astonishment at the soft landing afforded to this film. If you don’t give a damn about how Nike reaps its profits, there’s much to enjoy in what is otherwise a wellmade Hollywood feature with an all-star cast. If anything, Affleck tries almost too hard to seduce the viewer. If you’re hanging out for some 1980s pop music there’s a new song every few minutes.
The story revolves around Nike’s efforts to recruit rising star, Michael Jordan, to be the figurehead of their campaign to capture the market for basketball shoes. When the film begins, in 1984, they are a distant third to their rivals, Converse and Adidas. Low sales translate into a tight marketing budget, which restricts the company’s ability to sign promising talent.
For veteran scout, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) the Eureka! moment arrives when he sees footage of Michael Jordan taking a long shot, and realises this young man is something special. He proposes spending the entire budget on Jordan and developing a new line of shoe with his name on it. This will be the Air Jordan sneaker that has, as of 2022, earned more than US$5 billion for Nike. The goal was to bring in US$3 million in sales over the first three years, but it would make $126 million within the first twelve months.
Sonny Vaccaro is the real hero of this tale. He has the insight to recognise Jordan’s star power and the obstinacy to fight for his corner when the boss, Phil Jordan (Ben Affleck), is prevaricating. Sonny is supported in his gamble by marketeer, Rob Strasser (Bateman) and fast-talking colleague, Howard White (Chris Tucker).
Taken simply as entertainment, Air is a very slick proposition. It draws us into the workaday world these men inhabit and asks us to empathise with their problems. After some of the films I’ve been watching lately it came as a relief to sink back into a classic Hollywood formula that provides one with all the necessary emotional triggers.
The only significant role for a woman is Viola Davis’s turn as Deloris Jordan, Michael’s resourceful mum, who takes the lead in negotiations with the sportshoe companies. Jordan’s dad, James (Julius Tennon), simply goes along for the ride, while Michael himself never presents his face to the camera. It’s slightly absurd that this character, around whom the entire story revolves, is never shown except from the back.
As everyone knows that Nike will eventually sign Michael Jordan, the skill of the movie, and of Alex Convery’s script, is to make an engaging narrative from a scenario utterly devoid of suspense. It’s not the outcome that keeps us switched on, it’s the way that outcome is achieved – the personalities and negotiations that make it happen.
In this sense, it’s Matt Damon’s film. As Sonny Vaccaro – whom he doesn’t even slightly resemble – he is the mastermind behind the historic deal that would bring cataclysmic changes to Nike’s prosperity and to the industry. Ben Affleck plays Phil Knight for laughs, as a ridiculous trendy Buddhist who comes good when it matters. Chris Messina almost steals the show as Jordan’s sociopathic agent, David Falk, whose sole focus is the bottom line.
It’s Falk’s role to portray the unscrupulous, gung-ho aspect of the business world. Deloris, who negotiates a percentage of profits for her son, is the heroine who shows how the corporate machine can be made to pay its fair share to their contracted talent. It’s a win-win scenario in which Sonny, the little battler, drags a reluctant company into a massively successful deal, and Deloris, a middle-aged black lady from South Carolina, tames the capitalist beast.
In terms of best practice, Nike would not begin to clean up its act until the 1990s, when it was shamed into changing its exploitative policies in South-East Asia. Since then, the company has flirted with with a range of high-profile social issues, cultivating an image as a corporate good guy while quietly backsliding when opportunities present themselves. The issue seems to be whether Nike feels it has a policy problem or simply a PR problem.
Fortunately for this corporate giant the world is much friendlier nowadays towards those businesses that make the odd caring gesture. In a world in which shopping is considered a hobby, an artform and a vindication of one’s ineluctable identity, those who provide the goods are to be celebrated rather than queried. When consumerism passes for culture, Just Do It, as the philosopher Roman Krznaric has written, has come to mean “Just Buy It”.
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Alex Convery
Starring: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, Chris Tucker, Matthew Maher, James Jordan, Marlon Wayans
USA, M, 112 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 April, 2023