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‘Air’ Knows Exactly What It Is

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s story of Nike’s paradigm-shifting deal with Michael Jordan is both a great time at the theater and an odd valorization of an already all-powerful brand

Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration

History is written by the winners, and Ben Affleck’s glossy new docudrama, Air, about Nike’s unlikely and ultimately paradigm-shifting shoe deal with a lanky shooting guard named Michael Jordan, is the cinematic equivalent of a victory lap. There’s a recurring joke in Alex Convery’s screenplay that, circa 1984, Nike was best known for its comfy workout apparel. Air works nicely on those terms, as a limber, vigorous jog over familiar territory.

Phil Knight (Affleck) isn’t just the company’s CEO, he’s his own best customer, cruising through suburban Portland in an array of colorful tracksuits. When he gets to the office, he stares down his basketball division’s downward sales curve while Run-DMC trumpets the greatness of their Adidas. Thirsty for market share, Knight instructs in-house hoops guru Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) to get thrifty and creative with a minuscule $250,000 budget. Ideally, the amount is to be split among three potential spokesmen, but Sonny, who’s got a paunch and a gambling problem, wants to blow the whole wad (and more) on Jordan, whose game he deconstructs, Zapruder-film style, en route to the unshakable belief that the kid is the next big thing.

Sonny is driven by the poetic, distinctly nonutilitarian idea that the shoe matters less than the person who wears it. He doesn’t know it yet, but his philosophy shrewdly anticipates the larger cults of personality that would come to define American pop culture in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond—the idea that people everywhere would pay a premium if they could be like Mike. We, of course, do know it, and the pleasures and the limitations of Air are bound up in the essential, irresistible frictionlessness of this 20/20 hindsight. Suspense and drama become subordinate to a kind of cozy superiority: The big moments have the exhilaration of windmill dunking on a 6-foot rim. Points are scored on broad pop-cultural reference points from WrestleMania to “Where’s the Beef?,” and characters’ trustworthiness is marked by how they talk about NBA stars whose legacies are long since settled (all that’s missing is a line about Sam Bowie being the next Kareem).

Such audience-flattering high jinks are de rigueur in movies of this type, and Air, to its credit, knows exactly what it is. With carefully curated production design and sterile, fluorescent aesthetics—a kind of ambient boardroom hum punctuated by a string of reliable I-Love-the-’80s bangers—Affleck’s film belongs to a contemporary subgenre of corporate origin myths whose gold standard is probably The Social Network. But there’s another, even more specific influence here in the form of Moneyball, itself a sort of Social Network clone, right down to the Aaron Sorkin script. The common denominator across the three movies is the presence of self-styled disruptors reshaping various industries in their image—a rare and potent opportunity to yoke together seemingly opposed values of subversion and success.

If The Social Network plays like a millennial Citizen Kane, Air is closer to the light and satisfying sensation of reading a Wikipedia article while shuffling through a good playlist. Affleck isn’t a masterful filmmaker—or a subversive one—but he has a gift for pacing and working with actors. He got superb performances out of Michelle Monaghan and his younger brother, Casey, in Gone Baby Gone, one of the more impressively fatalistic Hollywood thrillers of recent years; it powers through its own clunky plot mechanics to a nearly wordless final scene whose pathos and ambiguity have a distinct ’70s inflection. Meanwhile, the good parts of The Town are probably better than you remember, from the bullet-riddled action set pieces to the scenery-chewing bits from a ferocious Jon Hamm to a mesmerizing Pete Postlethwaite. Like Gone Baby Gone, The Town is derivative—it’s basically “We Have Heat at Home”—but it’s got a solid, old-school dramatic infrastructure that holds up even as the script keeps heaping on profundity; the same canny, alert instincts that make Affleck a good actor prevent his filmmaking from getting soggy. And the movie’s final scene, in which the director-star’s exiled antihero stares meaningfully across a lake while sporting a brand-new beard—you know, for chin stroking—is delectably macho camp.

Depending on your point of view, Argo’s fast-and-loose playing with the facts of the so-called Canadian Caper, in which the CIA used the production of a fake science-fiction movie to facilitate the extraction of hostages from Tehran, was either part and parcel of its placating, crowd-pleasing packaging of deep state triumphalism or part of its satirical allegory about Hollywood’s colonizing of the popular imagination. The final scene, showing a child’s bedroom lined with Star Wars figurines, serves as a witty punctuation mark. The historical stakes in Air are lower, but the movie is even more playfully self-reflexive when it comes to the topic of filmmaking: Affleck and Damon are releasing it under the banner of their new independent production company, Artists Equity, which will strive to reroute back-end profits from streaming to below-the-line talent. Air argues that by giving Jordan a piece of his own sneaker sales, Nike was ahead of the current player empowerment curve—a detail that dovetails conceptually with Affleck’s new startup and informs his endearingly dorky performance as Knight, who famously sold sneakers out of his Plymouth in the 1960s en route to a personal net worth of $46.7 billion today.

Since his ingenious casting in Gone Girl, Affleck has consistently fused elements of his bruised, hangdog celebrity with impressive technique. Consider The Last Duel, in which he conjured up Dazed and Confused levels of repugnance beneath a bottle-blond dye job and douchey goatee. There, he bickered entertainingly with Damon in a sort of anti–Good Will Hunting satire; in Air, he and Damon spend most of the time pumping each other up, and the chemistry between them is undeniable. Damon carries the movie, and Affleck adorns it; his role as Knight riffs on both his indie roots and contemporary neo-mogul status while giving affable, sympathetic shading to a cipher whose extensive résumé as a philanthropist includes significant contributions to conservative causes that a Hollywood liberal like Affleck would surely blanch at.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Jordan famously said in 1990, a deathless, deeply revealing one-liner that was futilely recast in 2020’s The Last Dance as an off-the-cuff joke. Because Jordan isn’t really a character in Air (he’s seen mostly from behind or in profile, with only a few cursory lines of dialogue), the film doesn’t have to worry about idealizing his persona, but the specter of hagiography—not just of Jordan, but of Knight and his employees—still hovers over the proceedings. The near-religious reverence that Sonny has for his potential client is one thing, but telling the story of Nike’s courtship means making underdog folk heroes out of six-figure executives, billionaire CEOs, and their marketing departments, most of whom are white-skinned and white-collared, scanning African American demographics for potential profit margins.

It’s worth asking whether the kind of self-awareness that puts a handsome director in a goofy tracksuit and curly wig is enough. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Affleck, who has played golf with Jordan and reportedly took his suggestion to cast Viola Davis as his mother, Deloris, credited his once-and-eternal better half Jennifer Lopez with hipping him to the project’s urgent and endlessly complex sociological subtext. “She is incredibly knowledgeable about the way fashion evolves through the culture as a confluence of music, sports, entertainment and dance,” Affleck said. “She helped me in talking about the way in which a part of the reason why Jordans [the shoes] were so meaningful is because culture and style in America is 90 percent driven by Black culture. … In this case, [Nike], a white-run corporate entity, was starting to do business with African American athletes in an identity affiliation sales thing.”

Affleck ultimately proves savvy about these issues on-screen, deploying a series of slick and thoroughly self-congratulatory storytelling decisions to cover his bases. Before decamping to Wilmington to personally lobby Deloris, Sonny confers with a pair of Black friends and colleagues, Howard White (Chris Tucker) and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), who effectively bless his pilgrimage so that there’s no lingering ambivalence about his methods or motives. Tucker, who reportedly helped to rewrite his own dialogue, contributes a funny, relaxed performance that gives his scenes a lift. Wayans, though, can’t quite overcome the symbolism of his role as Raveling juxtaposes his participation in the civil rights movement—and his ownership of the original draft of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech—with Sonny’s brand-oriented quest. In The Hateful Eight, when Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren claims to have a letter from Abraham Lincoln in his back pocket as a get-out-of-racism-free card, it’s a satirical gambit with a devastating punch line. Here, the idea that Raveling’s anecdote about Dr. King’s oratory inspired Sonny’s improvised 11th-hour pitch is sincere, and sincerely disingenuous.

Is it fair to hold Air to any kind of rigorous ideological standard? After all, it’s not as if The Social Network is a particularly progressive piece of work, and it proved shortsighted about the real consequences of Facebook. Read in the broadest possible strokes, Affleck’s film has real acuity about different elements of sports, culture, and industry: It understands how Jordan’s individual brilliance transcended his sport and seduced a generation of consumers; it cares about the engineering and ingenuity that went into making Air Jordans, with Matthew Maher channeling genuine outsider-artist vibes as the eccentric designer Peter Moore; and it pays respect to deep-seated American ideas about risk and reward. But there’s also something ultimately try-hard about it that’s difficult to reconcile, a lingering sense of a desire to have its platitudes and smirk at them too.

In one crucial scene, Sonny’s pal and colleague Rob Strasser (an excellent Jason Bateman) talks about listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” over and over again without really listening to the lyrics, and then finally cluing into the fact that the song he’s been using to psych himself up is a withering critique of jingoism sung from the sardonic, wounded vantage of a Vietnam vet with his back against the wall. In 1984, Ronald Reagan tried to use “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign song—a hymn to faith and optimism with power chords. In response, Springsteen suggested the president listen to Nebraska’s “Johnny 99,” a chilling parable of job loss, alcoholism, and violence.

Surely Affleck knows all this, which is why Air’s use of “Born in the U.S.A.” over its closing where-are-they-now montage is so fascinating and so vexing. Having already established that the song’s patriotism is a sleight of hand—and that its meaning lies with the listener—Affleck proceeds to use it more or less straight-facedly behind information and images testifying to the heroism and decency of his real-life dramatic subjects, including Knight, whose various charitable causes are inventoried in great detail. He also includes a strange, funny little scene of himself as Knight pocketing a granola bar from the Nike cafeteria without paying. Everything about the sequence hints at some troubling, unspoken tension between what we’re seeing and what it means, but not to the point where it actually changes the material’s meaning: It’s irony without teeth, and it wouldn’t know who to bite if it could. The main takeaways from Air are that an essentially faceless corporation found a way to humanize itself through a perfectly chosen surrogate superhero, and that the middle-aged dudes who made the pick were visionaries—cool rocking daddies in the U.S.A. But when you’re watching such a triumphant capitalist fable of market dominance, another Springsteen lyric comes to mind: “A king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.