Do you want to…
Bop along to high-flying sports action set to your favorite 80s and 90s hits?
Behold Nike and Michael Jordan taking over the world together and becoming two of the most recognizable brands of all time?
Bask in the heat of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon rekindling their onscreen bromance — a la “Good Will Hunting”?
Place bets on which celebrity or athlete will make the next cameo?
Feast your eyes on Ben Affleck jogging gingerly in a magenta 80s windbreaker?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions other than the last one, Air might not be for you.
BUT if you’ve always wanted to see a sports underdog movie without all the sports, “Air” is your Huckleberry. It’s got everything except the sports…
This underdog team is comprised of the leaders of Nike’s young basketball shoe division in 1984 — Matt Damon as the resident basketball scout, Sonny Vaccaro; Jason Bateman as Sonny’s boss and head of marketing Rob Strasser; and Ben Affleck as Nike’s legendary founder Phil Knight aka “The Shoe Dog.”
At the time in 1984, Nike sold a measly 17% of basketball shoes every year vs. Converse’s juggernaut 54% worn by all the top players including Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and Adidas 29% which was enjoying a cultural moment thanks to the rise of their iconic running suits and the hip hop acts like Run DMC who wore them.
Nike was a running shoe company that sponsored Olympians and supplied serious runners, not a household brand.
Damon’s “Sonny” spends most of his time flying around scouting high school basketball games and the rest of it nursing a gambling habit in Vegas. He was hired to identify and court up-and-coming basketball stars for Nike to sponsor, but he hasn’t made a winning deal yet.
Converse literally helped invent and popularize the game of basketball in the early 1900s; all the best NBA players wore their Pro Leathers in the 70s and 80s.
Adidas was run by a scary German family, ‘nuff said.
The film’s true villain is Chris Messina, Michael Jordan’s cocky and crass agent who thinks so little of Sonny and Nike Basketball that he won’t even give them a meeting to make a sponsorship offer to MJ.
George Raveling is a former Olympics basketball coach who worked with Jordan at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. In “Air,” George inspires Sonny to rethink his playbook for getting to Jordan, which leads Sonny to fly to North Carolina and visit the Jordans directly rather than working through MJ’s agent (the aforementioned villain Messina) — a huge no-no in the industry.
This elicits a reaction from Messina that smacks of Tom Cruise’s foulmouthed agent rant in “Tropic Thunder.” I won’t link the scene here because it’s too nasty … google “Tom Cruise Tropic Thunder phone call.”
Sonny’s plan works and the Jordans agree to come to Portland to meet with the Nike team.
But rather than Rocky sprinting on the beach or anybody doing anything physically exciting, it’s a bunch of doughy, middle-aged guys getting ready for the big meeting with the Jordans — designing the shoe; scripting the pitch and their roles in the meeting; reminding each other repeatedly about how everything’s on the line and they gotta win this one.
During the big Jordan meeting, Sonny shuts down a nice video from Nike’s marketing team, looks Michael straight in the eyes and delivers an unscripted, from-the-heart emotional appeal. It starts “I’m gonna look you in your eyes and I’m gonna tell you the future.”
I just watched it again. It’s great, it’s prophetic, and it doesn’t mince words about the gruesome realities of MJ’s coming fame.
After Sonny and team give their big pitch to the Jordans — basically “we’re gonna start a whole new shoe line called ‘Air Jordan’” — Adidas ups their offer to include Michael’s favorite car. That’s it; Sonny and his team can’t match that. They’re cooked.
SPOILER ALERT — there’s a triumphant ending. Even though we all know it’s coming, it’s still delivered in a really satisfying way.
I’m impressed and delighted that a quiet, little film about this big, crazy story got made.
I was expecting a classic sports epic — a spectacle. I mean: Nike, Jordan, Damon, Affleck.
I’m thrilled to be wrong and glad I wore the appropriate jersey to the movie — my work clothes.