Ben Affleck’s Nike Film “Air” Is a Witty Meditation on Artistry and Celebrity

The film chronicles the company’s 1984 quest to sign Michael Jordan.

Let’s get this out of the way: In Air, Ben Affleck’s breezy film about the birth of Michael Jordan’s partnership with Nike, Matt Damon drives over the St. Johns Bridge and Chris Tucker declares that Portland has the best burgers. But the film is not really about Portland. Or Nike. Or Michael Jordan, for that matter.

Given Affleck’s recent history—divorce, marriage, starting a new company—it’s hard not to see Air, a saga of celebrity worship and entrepreneurial verve, as a reflection of his hoped-for rebirth. Which raises the question, will Air restore the reputation of the man who went from winning an Oscar for Argo to doing Justice League reshoots in Zack Snyder’s backyard?

In a word, probably. Air has a laughably romanticized view of Nike, but like the best sports movies, it’s about the game behind the game—the one whose players are sweaty, irritable businessmen whose schemes can be as exhilarating as a slam dunk.

Chief among them is Sonny Vaccaro, an executive who spends 1984 rolling his eyes at the options for players he could sign to Nike’s beleaguered basketball division. (Melvin Turpin? Pass, he says.) It’s a thankless job, and with a paunch visible under his shapeless sweaters, Damon looks less like Jason Bourne than one of Bourne’s slimy CIA handlers.

Then…a revelation. Watching a video of then-rookie Michael Jordan taking a game-making shot, Sonny becomes obsessed. Like a priest rereading holy Scripture in search of divine inspiration, he eventually realizes that Jordan isn’t just talented: He’s smart, and potentially Nike’s savior.

Jordan is a near-mythic figure in Air—he’s seen only from behind, and the one time we hear his voice, it’s a single word over the phone (“hello”). But we meet his mother Deloris (Viola Davis), who Sonny woos in North Carolina, circumventing Jordan’s perpetually outraged agent (Chris Messina).

As Sonny and Deloris enter the Jordans’ backyard, she remarks that their ancestors have lived there since the Civil War and that the surrounding trees are 800 years old. She then turns the conversation to Sonny’s mother, which he cheerfully recognizes as a trick to keep him on the defensive. Salesmanship is a language they both speak fluently—and Damon and Davis deftly capture the intimacy of two people who respect one another’s mastery of bullshit.

Sonny is selling Nike, Deloris is selling Jordan, Air is selling both. Working from a screenplay by Alex Convery, Affleck (who plays Phil Knight) has created a film that is both a defiantly uncritical ode to Nike and a rant against its rivals at the time. To this director, Converse is a kingdom for Rolex-loving phonies, Adidas is a haven for Nazi apologists, and Knight is a scrappy outsider leading a rebellion against evil shoe empires.

There are traces of truth in this narrative; a line about Knight selling sneakers out of the back of his Plymouth sounds cheesy, but is actually based on fact. Still, it’s hard not to snicker when the film informs us during the end credits that Knight has donated $2 billion to charity (given that Knight’s current net worth is $47.1 billion, Affleck may have an inflated idea of his generosity).

That said, you can scoff at Air and still enjoy it. It may lack the spikiness and savviness of The Social Network or Moneyball, but it belongs in the same genre—movies about men improbably finding themselves as they rage, negotiate, flounder and coerce their way through office life.

There are many gems amid the maneuvering, from director of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) ruminating on the true meaning of “Born in the USA” to Knight praying while barefoot on his couch. In several delectable scenes, the lovably abrasive Matthew Maher plays Air Jordan designer Peter Moore. The frantic Tucker steals every scene he’s in as Howard White, who’s currently Nike’s Jordan brand vice president.

Ultimately, Air is the Sonny/Damon show—and Affleck fittingly enlists his friend (and Good Will Hunting co-writer) as his apparent avatar. When Nike reveals the first Air Jordan, Sonny unleashes a prophetic monologue, telling Jordan of the trials ahead. People will build you into an icon who cannot possibly exist, he warns. And taunted by the very image of perfection they have created, they will tear you down.

In that moment, it’s as if Affleck is speaking through Damon. How many cycles of failure and reinvention has he experienced? Gigli killed his career; Hollywoodland revived it. Argo raised him up; Batman, alcoholism and heartbreak brought him down.

Now, Affleck is married to Jennifer Lopez and he and Damon have started their own production company, Artists Equity. Their ambitions are at once commercial and artistic—not unlike Nike as it’s portrayed in Air.

Can Affleck and Damon shake up cinema the way Jordan and Knight shook up sports? Probably not, but they have made a pleasantly sentimental and sturdy film. Call it the Foot Locker school of moviegoing: If the film fits, buy it.

SEE IT: Air, rated R, plays at Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, City Center, Clackamas, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Hollywood, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place and Studio One.

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