Air chronicles a sports endorsement breakthrough

Ben Affleck directs this story about shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and his pursuit on behalf of Nike to land promising rookie basketball player Michael Jordan (Damian Young) for an endorsement deal. Affleck stars as Nike CEO Phil Knight. (112 min.)

click to enlarge Air chronicles a sports endorsement breakthrough
MAKING HISTORY: Air Jordan designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher, left), endorsement dealmaker Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, center), and marketing guru Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman, right) work together to land basketball icon Michael Jordan in a historic deal.

Glen: Even if you’re not a sports fan, Air makes for compelling entertainment. In many ways, it’s really Deloris Jordan’s story. Viola Davis plays the basketball star’s mother with conviction. Deloris understood how deep her son’s talent ran, and as his fierce advocate, she wasn’t going to let shoe manufacturers exploit him for their gain. Converse and Adidas are also competing for Michael Jordan’s endorsement, but Vaccaro—tenacious, clever, and inspirational—knew exactly what Deloris needed to hear. Deloris wasn’t going to make the decision for her son, but she clearly held a lot of sway over him. Damian Delano Young plays 18-year-old Michael, but he gets little screen time, and Affleck wisely made the decision to never show his face. Instead, the story concludes with archival footage of Michael and the other principal participants in the groundbreaking endorsement deal. It’s not giving anything away to say Nike won; the Air Jordan shoe is iconic. Watching how the deal got done is where the entertainment lies.

Anna: Luckily this story isn’t just for fans of sports, or basketball, or Michael Jordan, or shoes. Seeing lines outside of Shoe Palace when a new Air Jordan shoe is released is proof enough that these iconic shoes still are raking in billions for Nike. Damon is great as Sonny, who is told “no” almost constantly and has decided not to hear it anymore. Nike had $250,000 that year to spend on athletes to gain endorsements, and Vaccaro wanted to spend it all on Jordan. What seemed to the execs as a crazy move wound up being brilliant and built an empire. I believe this is the first time that Affleck has directed Damon, though the two famously have worked together since they were kids. His role as Phil Knight portrays the CEO as quite a character—barefooted and driving a purple Porsche with a deep need to be taken seriously. I’m not a sports person, and these aren’t the kind of shoes I care at all about, but this movie made us root for Sonny’s win—and he won big.

Glen: It’s a true character-driven story. Bateman is terrific as marketing guru Ron Strasser, who worries Vaccaro’s cavalier style will get them both fired. Chris Tucker as Nike executive Howard White also brings a certain manic energy to the role, but Chris Messina as Jordan’s sports manager wins the scenery-chewing award. His angry, friendless, tenacious David Falk is a real killer. However, other than Davis’ Deloris, my favorite character was shoe designer Peter Moore, who Matthew Maher plays as a mad and obsessive genius. I don’t care much about sports, but I love a good sports movie, and this one is feel-good gold.

Anna: I’m with you on loving both Davis in her role as well as Maher in his. I didn’t know that the NBA fines people who wear shoes that are less than 51 percent white, and I loved watching Maher as Moore when he’s given the freedom to create something that breaks the rules. It was so smart to build the shoe, and the brand essentially, around Jordan—but at the time it was also a huge risk. Sometimes you just have to take the shot, and Vaccaro did so brilliantly. You have to love the story of a big win, and that’s certainly what this was. I’ll watch these actors any time; this cast was awesome. 

New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Glen compiles listings. Comment at [email protected].

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