Tuesday, April 4, 2023

An entertaining 'Air' scores big

   It's no surprise that Ben Affleck latched onto the story of how Nike landed Michael Jordan, made him the centerpiece of a landmark marketing campaign, and created a billion-dollar success. 
  With Air, Affleck had hold of a good story -- an underdog signs the big dog when nobody thought his company had a shot. On top of that, the story touches on what has become an all-American obsession: branding.
   Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, a chubby basketball devotee tasked with building Nike's basketball division. In the early 1980s, the company was widely recognized for its running shoes but had yet to dent the basketball market.
   Vaccaro wanted to change that.
   The marketing mantra that developed around Vaccaro's efforts: "A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it."
    Well, not any someone but an athlete whose name evokes stardom of such a high order that the shoe confers its own brand of transformative magic on its wearer.
     Air may not be the most serious of works, but it entertains with a tightly written script, humor, and a lively pace.
   Damon plays Vaccaro as a man with a well-developed eye for basketball talent. When Nike was pursuing Jordan, he already had been  recognized as a player on the verge of a big-time NBA career. But few anticipated just how big MJ would get. Vaccaro did.
     Affleck, who directs a screenplay by Alex Convery, plays Phil Knight, Nike's founder, a running nerd, meditator, and New Agey boss who was ready to give up on the basketball division. Instead, he took a chance -- not so much on Jordan but on Vaccaro's judgment, which the movie portrays as unshakable conviction.
     Kicking off in 1984, Air mixes business and sports, showing how Vacarro decided to concentrate the basketball division's marketing budget, betting its $250,000 allotment on one player instead of on a number of lesser players.
    Adidas, a German company, had been the frontrunner in the Jordan sweepstakes; it had more cash to spend and Jordan initially preferred the Adidas shoe. 
    As the story develops, Vaccaro and cohorts devise a plan to give Jordan his own line of shoes. Hence, the birth of Air Jordans.
    Getting to Jordan wasn’t easy. As it turns out, the road went directly through Jordan's mom (Viola Davis). Jordan's caustically funny agent (Chris Messina) belittles Vaccaro at every opportunity, cautioning him not to call Jordan's mom. 
     Davis adds backbone to the movie. Jordan, who isn't seen much, becomes an almost marginal figure. Mom must be convinced, and she's anything but a pushover. 
     Steely and serious, Deloris Jordan was responsible not only for deciding to go with Nike but for negotiating to obtain a percentage of every shoe sale, something that evidently had never happened prior to the Nike/Jordan alliance.
     A well-cast Nike crew supports Vaccaro. Jason Bateman  has a nice turn as Rob Strasser, Nike's head of marketing. Chris Tucker portrays Howard White, a Nike exec who encouraged Sonny when others didn't.
      Matthew Maher takes on the role of shoe designer Peter Moore,  and Marlon Wayans plays George Raveling a coach who offers Vaccaro insight into Jordan as a person and as an athlete. 
     As much fun as the movie can be, it leaves you wondering whether you've been faked out. You will,  after all, have spent 112 minutes rooting for a variety of people to become billionaires, for the elevation of the humble sneaker to a magisterial throne.  
     Making us forget about that reflects a kind of genius. Affleck and Convery keep the spotlight on Vaccaro, turning Air into the story of a true believer who triumphs. They almost make you forget that Nike is a major corporation with a board, shareholders and everything that goes along with American mega-business. 
     Sure, the movie refers to Nike’s board and how it might react to the Jordan deal, but Affleck smartly maintains focus. He’s not interested in a Succession-like story about corporate in-fighting. He’s interested in the mixture of faith and perseverance that underlie a good story.
      As I said at the outset, Affleck has hold of just such a story and he knows how to tell it.

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