Directed by: Ben Affleck
Premise: Based on true events. In 1984, Nike struggles to compete in the basketball shoe market. Marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) stakes the company’s future on signing Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal.
What Works: Air reunites Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with Affleck directing and acting as Nike co-founder Phil Knight and Matt Damon starring as marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro. Affleck and Damon work well together and this film displays the wit and intelligence of their collaborations on Good Will Hunting and The Last Duel. Although it’s a story about a footwear company, Air adopts the format of sports films in which a ragtag group of outcasts learn to work as a team and take their shot. Despite the fact that Nike is now such a dominant brand, the filmmakers successfully make the company and its executives the underdog and the film plays to that appeal. Most viewers know how this turns out but Air is nevertheless engaging and the climactic pitch to Michael Jordan and his family has a bit of tension and stakes. Matt Damon is central to the film’s success. He has an intensity and conviction that is contagious. Air is also very humorous but in a way that humanizes the characters without cheapening the drama.
What Doesn’t: Biographical dramas tend to have moments in which the script and the performances become very self-aware as they dramatize a key moment that defines the subject, such as the creation of a musician’s signature song in a show business biopic. These scenes are often hokey and they come across artificial. Air does this a lot with the movie pausing for Damon to pose and deliver a dramatic line. This film is also similar to many recent biographical films in the way it acts as an advertisement for a corporate product. Recent musical biographies such as I Wanna Dance With Somebody and Respect and Rocketman exist to build up the value of the artist’s catalog and Air does much the same thing for Nike and Michael Jordan. To their credit, the filmmakers acknowledge the fact that Nike’s products are made by exploited workers in developing nations but it’s an empty concession devoid of insight. The implicit message of the film is that the ethical problems inherent to the production of these shoes is outweighed by Nike’s extraordinary profits and the way the sales of those shoes contributed to the mythology around Michael Jordan. It’s a strange and even crass calculation.
Bottom Line: Air finds the drama in a business deal. The film is also a corporate apologia and it relies on some of the hokey elements frequently found in biographical filmmaking. But Air is smart and entertaining enough to make for a compelling drama.
Episode: #945 (April 23, 2023)