September 22, 2023

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.


The emotional center of “Air” is an impassioned, inspirational speech which Nike shoe sales exec Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) delivers to try to get then-rookie basketball star Michael Jordan to sign with his company. Hair tousled, eyes intent, Damon stares at the camera and insists that Jordan is the only one at the table who matters. Everyone else, he says, will be forgotten. This is Jordan’s story. The business guys are all just bit players.

Noah Berlatsky

It’s a remarkable speech, not because it’s especially well-written (it’s Hollywood boilerplate), but because it openly, and even insouciantly, blows apart the entire premise of the film. “Air” knows that it is telling Michael Jordan’s story. Yet, even as it says so, it sidelines its main character; you never see Jordan’s face or hear him speak except through archival footage.

Instead, the narrative is focused on the shoe execs. “Air” is an extended lesson in how Hollywood can make you care about anyone — and how it nonetheless, over and over, keeps insisting that we care about the same affluent White guys winning for capitalism.

“Air” is set in 1984, at a crossroads for Nike’s basketball shoe brand. Adidas dominates the market, and Nike is thinking of getting out of the business to focus on the running shoes for which it is best known. But our hero, visionary basketball fan Sonny, is convinced that the NBA rookie Jordan has the potential to turn everything around. Sonny risks his own career and the careers of his coworkers on a long-shot attempt to get Nike CEO Phil Knight (played by director Ben Affleck) to pony up the cash to convince Adidas-obsessed Jordan to take a chance on endorsing a personal branded shoe with Nike: Air Jordan. And the rest is pop culture history.

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in 'Air'

Or at least that’s what you’re supposed to think. There’s no doubt that Air Jordan was immensely popular and became closely associated with Michael Jordan’s personal brand. The inevitable text info blurbs at the end of the film tell you how much he’s still making in passive income from his groundbreaking profit-sharing deal with the company.

But if, as the film keeps insisting, the important thing is not the shoe, but who put their foot in it, then it stands to reason that Jordan could have elevated any company he signed with. Quite possibly he could have convinced Adidas or Converse to share profits at some point too. He had a lot of leverage — and his mother Deloris (Viola Davis) was very determined to ensure her son capitalized on his gifts in every sense.

So the film isn’t about whether Jordan will be great or successful, on or off the court. It’s about which group of business suits will get to ride his coattails. But the obvious question booms: Why on earth should we care?

The movie doesn’t have a good answer. Instead, it offers up the usual Hollywood gimmickry, which it employs to great effect.

Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan and Julius Tennon as James Jordan in 'Air'

The first trick, of course, is casting Damon, Hollywood mega-star and perennial leading man, as the hero. Damon is heavier and older than in the “Bourne Identity” and “Ocean’s Eleven” days of yore — his dazzling good looks have puffed out and sagged, as anyone’s dazzling good looks will. But the ravages of time lend him a dash of character-actor underdog appeal to go with the star power.

Similarly, Affleck’s familiar face alone tells you that Knight is a good guy at heart beneath all the Buddhist aphorisms and corporate ego. If he was really all that bad, would he be played by adorable Affleck?

Of course, the movie skips lightly over Nike’s, long, ugly implication in sweatshop labor, which Knight was forced to address in the late 1990s after years of protest. Knight pledged the company would address abuses and allow outside monitors, and met some success in its endeavors to improve. But the film touches on none of that; it focuses instead on Knight’s large gifts to charity.

But in terms of getting you on Nike’s side, the cynical omissions are probably less important than the equally cynical narrative tropes.

Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in 'Air'

The camera is almost constantly on Sonny, the down-on-his-luck risk taker with a dream. His possibly compulsive gambling is presented as a colorful sign of his boldness and courage. When he goes around Jordan’s agent to speak directly to his parents, it’s not supposed to be an ethical lapse, but an admirable sign of his drive to win. We see his face fall as he worries that he’s cost his colleagues their jobs. But when the end text tells us Nike eventually bought Converse — because Converse was struggling — it’s presented as a feel-good success. You’re not supposed to worry whether Converse salespeople lost their jobs.

In short, you’re supposed to root for Sonny because he’s the star of the picture. Davis, obviously there for her gravitas, shows why she’s an icon, but ultimately her character still serves primarily to make Sonny a more successful businessman and a better person in the process. “Air” is a movie about salesmanship which almost revels in its ability to sell you a hill of beans and convince you it’s an awesome athletic shoe. It makes you think this guy is your guy through sheer shinola.

If Hollywood can make you root for anyone, though, you have to wonder why it insists on getting you to root so consistently for the same guys. Jordan is one of the most iconic, important sports stars in history, one of the best-known Black public figures ever. His mother was famously instrumental in his athletic and financial success. Yet, as a director, Affleck pushes them to the margins of their own story. He tells their tale from the perspective of White guys like himself. Black stars are important here only to the extent that they show the perspicacity of White superfans, like Sonny, and make money for White executives, like Knight (or Affleck).

Again and again, the movie tells you Jordan is the really special one. It makes much of the profit-sharing deal. Knight supposedly proves he’s a good guy and a responsible capitalist by signing off on it (the question of profit-sharing for the people who actually make the shoe is never raised).

These gestures at auto-critique, though, feel like just another effort to make the sale go down easier. Hollywood, in the form of Affleck and Damon, is telling you that you should feel good about sitting through a Hollywood movie starring Affleck and Damon.

“Air” is a slick package. The foot inside the wrapping is the wrong one, though, and it kind of stinks.


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