Is this what movies are now? It’s a question we might think about a lot lately. Are movies really becoming corporate advertisements for brands wherein the lead character risks everything in their life and is one of the lucky few who really makes it. This extension of the American Dream or American Exceptionalism is one kind of thing movies are now and it is not going away. The reason it is staying is fairly obvious to even an impartial observer: these brands come with built-in audiences in the millions. They are risk-averse filmmaking in one way and smart brand management in another way. There is an assurance that the most wildly popular shoe brand in the world, within which an entire subculture exists, is ready to have the merits of their brand identity extolled in a flashy way that proves to the world and themselves that what they care about is deeply important. A cynical reading can quickly write off any number of these projects. If we entertain the idea of some remnant of joy existing in this kind of extreme capitalism, though, we might just have a little bit of fun.
Air is a little bit of fun. It’s a corporate movie, yeah. Find one movie that succeeds at the box office that isn’t anymore. It’s the first line of product for Artists Equity, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s new production company, which offers profit-sharing as a new model for rewarding directors in a system increasingly broken by a long outdated model failing artists in a new market. Ben Affleck also directs their first feature. Fittingly, it is a film about a sea change in commercial products wherein Nike’s massively popular Air Jordan shoe line changed the game for athletes the world over, offering profit sharing over the sales of basketball sneakers, wherein the athlete did not simply wear the brand, but were the brand unto itself.
A film about synergy, this is also a small victory for the new studio’s synergy itself. Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball expert brought in at Nike to recruit mid-level draft picks to wear their shoes. While Nike became the world’s best-selling running shoes, they were steadily losing the basketball market to Adidas and Converse. Sonny hatched a brilliant plan. They’d put all their eggs in the Michael Jordan basket and it would be their only basket. The film is about courting the Jordan family and trying to prove that this at-the-time outside company nestled in Beaverton, Oregon, deserved to be worn by the emerging generational athlete.
When a film is so much about one person and has to be sanctioned by them to tell the story, you have to worry about the ethics of still making the film. It is a hagiographic type of story for sure. Michael Jordan has a strictly controlled image. This is both because of his success and why his branding is so successful. When The Last Dance aired on Netflix, it proved a capacity for criticism. Maybe Jordan was relenting and letting the legend be told while he is still here to massage the message into a tribute. Air feels more strictly controlled in only one sense but it is an important factor: we get so little of Michael himself. There is an actor who plays Michael, Damien Delano Young, who is mostly off-screen and even when portrayed in voice, may only get a line or two of representation. Because every step of the process is so holistically about creating a brand for Michael Jordan, it’s probably a choice that would go differently without any such control over the product. Rather than through Young’s performance, we mostly receive Jordan as he was: through highlight reels and clippings that lead us through the moments of his professional lives.
The producers have noted that Michael Jordan especially had one request: Viola Davis has to be his mom. Viola Davis plays Deloris Jordan and the film puts a very fine point on her immense influence over his development as one of the world’s most successful athletes. Viola Davis is always great and that remains true. There are two other performances I’m very fond of here: Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, the genius shoe designer who made the dream reality, played with such ingenuity, and Chris Tucker as Howard White who gets the most laughs in a fairly funny role on his character’s way to becoming Vice President of the Jordan Brand. Less resonant is Affleck himself as Shoe Dog Phil Knight. We all know his story and there are deep documents about it already so it is not overburdened here. Yeah, he doesn’t wear shoes in his office, gave away a couple billion to charity, and then funded his son’s movie career which gave us LAIKA Studios. Those last two items may interest us more than shoes.
The film does a corporate job of weaving the story of Nike’s great signing. We’re given a background of the brand and the key players. Why the Jordans chose Nike over Adidas and Converse, the latter who Nike who buy out thanks to this massive success. There are not any real challenges to any ethical problems with the brand or the professional athlete complex and everyone in the movie makes a lot of money. There’s a moment where a worker insists that this is a reckless risk and that as a parent who’s child relies on him to show up in their life, it puts his livelihood at risk. We do not get the movies about the corporate risks that constantly fail their employees or the dark side of companies and the labor often involved in creating their products. We do not get any stories at all about the people who say “let’s not risk it all, my life is at stake” and then their lives are ruined in the process. There are more of those stories but they do not sell movie tickets. What we do get are mostly-agreeable and synergistic advertisements to buy more products and to spend more time with brands in different spaces. This one basically works in the way these work but does very little to meaningfully change the conversation about this type of movie. Sometimes you take great risks and just get a perfectly fine movie out of it. That’s how it usually goes, anyway.