AIR: The BRWC Review

air

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have reunited again on the big screen for the first time since their Oscar winning collaboration in Good WIll Hunting.  The real life best friends became the golden boys of Hollywood after they each took home an Academy Award for penning the screenplay. The Town is my favorite of his many films working behind the camera. Affleck won an Academy Award for his work directing, Argo, which won Best Picture. His approach to telling the AIR story about how Nike became a global money making brand is to focus on sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro who is portrayed by Matt Damon.

Michael Jordan left the University of North Carolina for the NBA in 1984. Nike co-founder Phil Knight benefited from brokering the landmark Air Jordan sneaker deal which still generates over $2 billion dollars on an annual basis. “It’s a lot of people who think they created the success of the Jordan Brand, which is kind of ironic in some ways,” Michael Jordan told USA Today Sports. Jordan shared his perspective on how the main players were very different.

The article further states. “He’s the only one who sounded even slightly amused about who gets credit for the landmark deal. Charges of exaggeration, deception, betrayal and conspiracy were leveled during interviews with USA TODAY Sports with those involved in the deal. Jordan weighed in, as did Nike co-founder Phil Knight, Nike executive George Raveling, former Nike basketball adviser Sonny Vaccaro and former Nike executive Peter Moore.”



“The signing of Michael Jordan, yeah, success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan,” Knight told USA TODAY Sports. A lot of people want to take credit for signing Michael Jordan, most obviously Sonny Vaccaro. On ESPN he said he was the key to the thing. Sonny helped, but he wasn’t the MVP in that process.”

The legendary Michael Jordan was very straightforward about his perspective on what happened. “In all honesty, I never wore Nike shoes until I signed with Nike,” Jordan said. “I was a big Adidas, Converse guy coming out of college. Then actually my parents made me go out to (Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.) to hear their proposal. “Prior to all of that, Sonny (Vaccaro) likes to take the credit. But it really wasn’t Sonny, it was actually George Raveling. George Raveling was with me on the 1984 Olympics team (as an assistant coach under Bob Knight). He used to always try to talk to me, ‘You gotta go Nike, you gotta go Nike. You’ve got to try… He actually introduced me to Sonny in L.A. And then, I didn’t know who Sonny was at the time,” Jordan said. “I knew of him, but I never really met him…Sonny didn’t influence me to go to Nike. He got a deal proposed. He talked to Strasser. Strasser at the time, from what I understood and perceived, he really didn’t know the type of player and the type of person I was. He was looking at whoever he could find to fit that mold from what he was trying to do from an Air Jordan standpoint.”

Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance documentary highlighted the important role his mother played in his career. Deloris Jordan was successful in convincing him to meet with Nike as a free agent. In 1984 Adidas, Converse and Puma were all bigger brands than Nike which was considered to be a running shoe. Chris Tucker went into detail on Big Tigger’s V-103 about how Deloris was a big influence. “Michael’s mom said, ‘You’re going to all these meetings. You got to see what they got to offer.”

Viola Davis is perfectly cast as Michael Jordan’s matriarch. She steals every scene that she is in and pinpoints the unwavering bond she has with her son, while flexing her impressive business acumen. She plays opposite her real life husband Julius Tennon who is more laid back than the gregarious personality that was often on display by the late James Jordan.

This is not your typical sports movie or biopic about Michael Jordan’s struggle to build his career with a stellar rise to fame and fortune like Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard which earned Will Smith an Oscar. AIR utilizes the cookie cutter template of Jerry Maguire without using the multilayered pathos about shining a light on any interpersonal relationships. Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Macguire opens with a sports montage of athletes showcasing their skills while Jerry explains the complexity of his job. He may work cooped up in an office space. But Jerry makes a point to visit players on his roster during their games. He falls in love, becomes a father and witnesses the doting dynamic of football player Rod Tidwell with his wife Marcee (Regina King).  Jerry’s arch nemesis is cutthroat sports agent Bob Sugar played by Jay Mohr. The actor makes a small meta type surprise cameo in AIR as rival Adidas exec John Fisher.

Damon’s Vaccaro is soley focused on his gambling addiction, creating a shoe and signing a rookie Michael Jordan as he spends a 24/7 existence living in the office to undergo his ambitious venture. Comedian Chris Tucker improvised most of his dialogue in his role as Nike executive Howard White who is currently Vice President of the Jordan Brand. Chris Messina as David Falk seems heir apparent to Bob Sugar. He often goes on the offensive as Michael Jordan’s crass agent who does whatever he can to provide a buffer between himself, his client and Nike.

The wall to wall 80’s music soundtrack sets the tone for the period film. This was a time when Nike boss Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) thought he was stylish wearing tracksuits, jogging in circles and occassionally elevating his bare feet on a desk to collect his thoughts. Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Howard White ( Chris Tucker) and shoe designer Pete Moore (Matt Maher) round out the team who are working down to the wire to negotiate the exclusive contract.

The story unfolds through dialogue heavy conversations with little physical blocking or camera movement amongst the actors, which makes the scope feel a bit claustrophobic. Vaccarro tracks down Jordan’s basketball coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) in a bar. Instead of them discussing the business matter on a basketball court to showcase his work as a professional and highlight his athletic skills. His talent helped Michael Jordan at the Olympics and forged their life long friendship. Vaccaro and White both conduct an important talk, about how critical it is to get the young player’s parents on board to move forward otherwise things will get stalled.

The audience is denied any glimpse of Michael Jordan’s face. How do you make a movie about Michael Jordan without ever showing the iconic player on screen? This question is a riddle that is never fully answered. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Jason Bateman are all former child actors. Showing the face of the young actor who plays Jordan would have a significant impact on his burgeoning future in the industry. Michael Jordan’s image is instead shown in grainy degraded archival footage projected on television screens.

“This is not the Michael Jordan story.” Affleck stated while promoting the film in the UK. “He is in fact not even in the movie. For one thing I thought it would be too difficult to get the audience to believe that anyone other than Michael Jordan was actually Michael Jordan. Considering he is so iconic.” The resulting narrative is thus shifted from having an African-American lead portraying Michael Jordan as the hero coming of age with his mother and father by his side in a competitive sport. He is never shown having to make the tough decision about what brand would win the deal like the nail biter presented on screen when Reebok approached a young Venus Williams. Ben Affleck admitted that Michael Jordan was not heavily involved in making AIR. But he did make suggestions about certain characters that had to be shown.

“This was a story about the world around him. About how he changed the world. He changed this company. About the people who look out for people in Michael’s situation.” Affleck explained to the tv presenter. “So the involvement was really limited to me having the opportunity and being gracious enough to give me the opportunity to sit down with him and say. 

“Listen this script came across my desk. First of all I won’t make it if you don’t want me to.  Full stop. Second of all if you are open to the idea. Because I have to change things in order to make it sort of a fable. And to make it a hour and a half and not mired in historical detail. I want to know what things are absolutely inviolate. That you can’t have changed and are important to you. He actually. It was telling. He cared about others being mentioned as being important to the process. Among them Howard White who Chris Tucker plays. George Raveling who Marlon Wayans plays and he talked about the importance of the role his mom played who of course is played by Viola Davis who is extraordinary.”

The sticky nature of not focusing on the historical accuracy makes the film feel like a long Nike commercial without any emotional payoff.  Matt Damon is framed in larger than life close-ups to maximize his screen time. The goal is to show that he is the hero of this story, because he rescued Nike from the embers of obscurity by securing Jordan.  The real life Vaccaro was not happy with having his role downplayed so he lashed out with a jarring retort in the Error Jordan article. “Phil Knight’s lying, Michael’s lying more than Phil and Raveling is insane,’’ said Vaccaro, who was fired by Nike in 1991 without public explanation and went to work at Adidas for Strasser and Moore, who left Nike in the late 1980s. “All three of them need to destroy me to live happily ever after. “Everyone’s trying to rewrite history. It goes beyond Jordan. I am the savior of Nike.’’

That is how the film unfolds with Vaccaro shown as the savior of Nike and Howard White along with George Raveling relegated to lesser prominence in the narrative. AIR runs on the nostalgia of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck having career comebacks that harkens to a bygone era. Damon had a cameo cut from Ocean’s Eight, Downsizing was collateral damage and he portrayed a Trump supporter in Stillwater which didn’t resonate. The other glaring omission was the significance of Black culture in helping the marketing of sneaker fandom. Rappers Run DMC helped make Adidas cool globally as their hit music singing their praises in My Adidas climbed the charts. Oscar winning director Spike Lee was another contributor to shaping the perception of the brand for a younger diverse generation in commercials and films which helped boost sales and solidify the iconic status of AIR Jordans.

AIR keeps it’s feet firmly on the ground and is far from a slam dunk. Viola Davis redeems the film by embodying Deloris as a caring parent who had a vision and understood the importance of headstrong leadership. it was an additional treat to see Chris Tucker try to capture the magic of his noteworthy one liners in cult favorite Friday. The truer origin story is depicted in the Michael Jordan documentary. Any cinephile can see the influence of Damon’s former collaborator Cameron Crowe who directed him in We Bought A Zoo. The famed director made Elizabethtown about a shoe designer who makes a failed money making brand venture. AIR depicts Nike’s path to success and unfolds like “We Bought A Shoe.”

Grade : C

AIR is now playing in theaters.


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Shani Harris is a New York City based critic, producer, filmmaker, journalist, photographer and writer. She has contributed to networks and publications such as CBS, Entertainment Tonight, MovieMaker, BlackFilm, The Root, OK Magazine and LIVID Magazine.

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