“I love that brown ball.” That’s what a 7-Eleven cashier says to a Nike basketball exec as he buys magazines with NBA stars on the covers. The young man expresses what kids, teens and adults around the country feel. An affinity for basketball, its heroes and camaraderie. A fellowship.
There are legends in sports, but only one king of kings. Billionaire Michael Jordan, the richest and most successful athlete of all time. How did he become a household name, a brand, an entity? It took a village.
Ronald Reagan is the president, Prince’s “Purple Rain” rules the charts and an elderly woman in a commercial wonders: “Where’s the beef?”. It’s 1984. The sports gear company Nike, Inc., in Beaverton, Oregon, is synonymous with a running shoe craze thanks to its entrepreneurial, self-actualized cofounder/CEO Phil Knight. The company’s small orphan-like basketball division, run by Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), has been greatly eclipsed by the hoop dreams of Adidas and Converse. Given a measly budget of $250K, Sonny could pay three mediocre b-ball players to endorse Nike gear, but his heart isn’t in it. He’d rather sign a big baller, but the competition is tough.
He has a bright idea. Give all the money to just one player, Michael Jordan (Damien Delano Young). He’s the #3 pick of the NBA draft, headed for the Chicago Bulls and watching him jump high in the air for a shot is magic. Knight and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman, Ozark), VP of Marketing, think Sonny is crazy. But Howard White (Chris Tucker), Nike’s athlete’s liaison, and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans, Respect), one of Jordan’s 1984 Olympics coaches, encourage him. Sonny is on a mission: “I’m willing to bet my career on one guy.”
Standing in the way is Jordan’s pushy, foul-mouthed agent David Falk (Chris Messina, Argo), who warns Sonny not to meet with Jordan’s parents behind his back. But to cut through the red tape, Sonny’s gonna have to break rules and find a way to kiss the feet of Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon) Jordan. Can this white man from Oregon impress two business-savvy and cautious African Americans who can see through a line of B.S.?
This all-American story cuts across generations, genders, races, classes and political views. Everyone knows MJ and can recognize his Air Jordan basketball shoes. Unraveling how the Jordan/Nike empire came to be is a smart idea. Cleverly written and reimagined by first-time screenwriter Alex Convery, the characters are in place, the conversations repeated, and the moments of discouragement, bravery, apprehension and success relived. A contagious feeling of triumph prevails in a spirit of entrepreneurship, fair play and respect for others that is so nostalgic it’s enviable. It’s the good ole days, not these divisive ones.
Far too often director/actor Ben Affleck is in the news for banal, gossipy reasons (Bennifer) and not for his talent. It’s easy to forget that he and co-star/co-producer Matt Damon won a Best Original Screenplay Osar® for Good Will Hunting or that in 2013 he directed the Best Motion Picture of the Year, Argo. Finally, Affleck’s top-notch directing skills are on display again, and he’s in the zone. He pulls animated and emotional performances from his entire cast and under his guidance, everything feels as real and entertaining as a movie can be.
The filmmaker gets a great assist from eheHthe time-warp sets and locations (production designer François Audouy, Ford v Ferrari) and clothes (Charlese Antoinette Jones, Judas and the Black Messiah). A bouncy energized ‘80s playlist includes soul (“Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus), rock (ZZ Top’s “Legs”) and pop (Cindi Lauper’s “Time After Time”), like a preserved jukebox (music supervisor Andrea von Foerster). There’s no let up. No dull spot. The footage has a steady beat (editor William Goldenberg, Argo) and the understated cinematography (Robert Richardson, Hugo) doesn’t’ glamorize the bland office building in Beaverton or simple life in the burbs of Wilmington, North Carolina—Jordan’s hometown.
Affleck, the cast, crew and script put you in a time capsule and take you back to the 1980s. Collages of the times set the tone. As Sonny gives an impassioned plea to the Jordans to sign up with Nike, glimpses of the real Jordan’s days of glory and tragedies fill the screen like an omen—as if to say success comes at a price.
Damon plays his everyman card with Sonny. Likable, pudgy, earnest and a progressive thinker. Affleck, as Knight, who puts his big feet on a desk emphasizing his earthy spiritual self. It’s a caricature of a benevolent but narcissistic CEO. Tucker is so affable you wonder why he isn’t in more films, while Messina’s take on the cutthroat agent is hilarious. He’s a liar, protector and self-absorbed salesman. The sports/jock trash-talking banter between him and Damon’s character is hysterical.
Tennon, as the silent stoic dad, says more in a glance than a page full of dialogue. When Viola Davis’ Deloris negotiates on behalf of her son with Nike, you feel bad for the billion-dollar corporation—it doesn’t stand a chance. Mom: “He deserves a piece.” Sonny: “A shoe is just a shoe…” Mom: “Until my son steps in it.” The actress displays the perfect balance of determination and warmth. Hard to take your eyes off her.
Air is a rousing crowd pleaser. A unique American story about the love of a brown ball so strong that it changed culture, the power dynamic for athletes and confirmed that big business, people and dreams can be a powerful equation.
In select theaters and on Amazon Prime Video April 5th.