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No substance, just 'Air'

Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in <em>Air.</em>
Ana Carballosa
/
Amazon Studios
Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in Air.

In 1984, a young Michael Jordan signed what was then the NBA's most lucrative sneaker deal with Nike. The Air Jordan line was a culture-shifting juggernaut, impacting not just the business of sports but fashion, celebrity, hip-hop, and street culture for decades to come. It inspired an encyclopedia. It became a status symbol. It renewed hand-wringing over American consumerism and "Black-on-Black" crime.

Over the years, there have been plenty of examinations of the Air Jordan brand's fraught success and influence, including a 2018 documentary, Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1. But we're living in the era of the nostalgic headline-to-Hollywood pipeline and in an age where entrepreneurs are obsessed with being credited as artistic visionaries, so perhaps it was inevitable something like the movie Air would come to exist. Directed by Ben Affleck with a screenplay by Alex Convery, Air is a soulless dramatization of how a giant corporation convinced a promising NBA rookie to make its already wealthy and well-off board members, CEOs, and salespeople even wealthier and set for life.

OK, that's the crass way of describing it; the film's creators would undoubtedly characterize their aims as being more "inspiring" than that. It's presented as a classic sports movie about an underdog team (in this case, Nike) achieving greatness with a game-winning score (a rousing boardroom sales pitch). It's imagined as a classic American tale of ambition and a singular vision, in the form of the underestimated salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). It's set up as an affirmation of Black Excellence writ large, of a budding superstar demanding, via his sharp-witted mother Deloris (Viola Davis), he is paid his worth in a business known for exploiting its athletes, especially its Black ones. (Interestingly, the faceless actor playing Jordan is only seen from behind and mutters just a handful of words throughout the entire film.)

But for all that Don Draperesque spin, Air really is crass. It's nothing more than a craven exercise in capitalist exaltation. The dramatic "stakes," if one wants to call them that – and if one does, they're being overly generous – are as follows: It's 1984, and Nike trails behind Adidas and Converse in sales. If you work at the giant corporation that is Nike at that time, that's a problem. This is especially true for Sonny, the longtime Nike salesman who's decided to bet his career on trying to secure the Chicago Bulls' NBA draft pick Michael Jordan for an unprecedented sneaker deal. (We know this because he says, "I'm willing to bet my career on Michael Jordan.")

The 'Disrupter'

Julius Tennon as James Jordan Sr. in <em>Air</em>.
Ana Carballosa / Amazon Studios
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Amazon Studios
Julius Tennon as James Jordan Sr. in Air.

Sonny is positioned as a "disrupter" who sees "greatness" in Jordan at a time when few others do. After replaying a VHS tape of the athlete's game-winning shot at the 1982 NCAA Championships, he decides the company has to break traditions and make an offer the other brands won't. Instead of spending its budget on signing multiple new basketball stars, Sonny wants Nike to go all-in on Jordan.

Unfortunately for Sonny, being a disrupter means facing opposition from those content with the status quo – including his boss, the cantankerous CEO Phil Knight (a red-haired Affleck); the by-the-books VP of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman); and Jordan's misanthropic, hard-bargaining agent David Falk (Chris Messina), who doesn't even want his client to take a meeting with Nike. And so Sonny does what all "great" men in Movies About Great Men do – he goes rogue, secretly driving from Oregon to the Jordan family's home in North Carolina to pitch himself directly to Deloris. Exactly how will Sonny finally break through all that defense and drive this deal to the net, huh???

Air is convinced there's enough nail-biting tension to be gleaned from this conundrum and enough audience buy-in of the Jordan mythos and brand to overcome such a flimsy premise. And to be fair, the performers are fully committed to what little character development they're given – Davis is, per usual, giving off convincing gravitas; Messina's prickly and lends some levity to the proceedings.

But just as there are many meetings that could've been an email, this is one movie that could've been a narrative podcast. (Many of the major figures involved, including Vaccaro and Knight, are still with us.) Sonny, our erstwhile hero, is by far the least interesting character; a bland descendant of countless white guy protagonists who have nothing left to lose, including Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire. This becomes painfully clear somewhere around the midway point of Air when Rob delivers a monologue about how he's wary of Sonny's wild plans and that he really, really needs to keep his job, not just for a paycheck, but because working at Nike has allowed him to connect with his young daughter. (He only gets to see her once a week following his divorce and always brings her a new pair of complimentary Nikes. Her love, it seems, is conditional upon being able to sport the latest kicks.) In those few minutes, we learn more about this secondary character than our disrupter, whose only defining characteristics are that he likes to gamble and that he's out of shape (several characters comment upon his weight). Rob's monologue is obviously thrown in to lend some weight to the Jordan recruitment that doesn't exist within the depiction of Sonny himself.

Show him the money

Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis).
/ Amazon Studios
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Amazon Studios
Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis).

And on the subject of Jerry Maguire: Like Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Rod Tidwell, Michael Jordan's strategic aims to secure the best deal possible are steered by the most important Black woman in his life – in both cases, there's a nod to subversiveness that doesn't quite hold water if you think about it too hard. ("We determine our worth," Rod's wife Marcee, played by Regina King, says while persuading him not to take an underwhelming offer. "You are a strong, proud, surviving, splendid Black man.")

Likewise, Jordan's mom Deloris is the one who holds the key to Sonny's future at Nike, and when she shrewdly negotiates with him over the phone – she insists her son get a cut of the revenue, unheard of at that time – Air wants the audience to believe there's a deeper purpose here beyond an exercise in championing capitalism. A Black man disrupting the historically racist system that undervalues Black talent by forcing that same system to run him his bag, and then some – this will undoubtedly appeal to a certain demographic that still reveres the old-school definition of the American Dream and celebrates Black billionaires as meaningful "progress." In my screening of Air, there were whoops and cheers when Nike finally accepted the terms of Deloris' negotiations.

Yet there's something ultimately hollow about trying to extract FUBU mentality from what amounts to a two-hour ad for Nike and the uber-rich, especially in this economy. It's marked by the same odd dichotomy that comes with hearing one of our beloved musicians, herself a billionaire, sing about being "paid ... in equity" and buying her husband a jet. Do they deserve to be compensated for their worth? Of course. But let's not pretend as if more insanely wealthy Black people are some sort of "win" for all of us.

Though at least when said pop star boasts about her riches, there's an engaging tension between her sheer artistry and the awareness of inequalities that exist in this country and everywhere else. With Air – which concludes with subtitles pointing out how the lush benefactors of this sweet, sweet deal have donated money to good causes in the years since – there's no there there, no feeling to latch onto besides, "Why was this made?" It's nothing but air.

Air is now playing in theaters.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.