Ben Affleck’s Air Is a Deranged Corporate Folktale About a Sneaker

Air’s origin story about the Michael Jordan–endorsed sneaker is far too high on its own supply.

If the world survives long enough to look back on our era, Air will be a cultural artifact to gaze upon in horror and ask, “What was wrong with those people?” (Warner Bros.)

Air is a celebration of the people at Nike who transformed the athletic shoe market back in the 1980s with one legendary product. I’m told that audiences are bursting into applause when the newly designed Air Jordan is first presented in close-up, as if a beloved star had suddenly made a cameo appearance.

The shoe is spoken of as a kind of totem for the young Michael Jordan, the phenomenal basketball player who fulfills the movie’s often repeated bit of supposed Zen wisdom: “A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it and gives it meaning.”

But in Ben Affleck’s Air, Michael Jordan himself is too important to be captured on film. He’s like Jesus Christ in classic Hollywood movies, when the sign of his holiness meant we couldn’t look directly at his face and had to settle for the back of his head, or his shadow, or the awed looks of ordinary mortals transfixed by him. (Grainy long shots of him playing basketball are also permitted.)

That’s how rich and famous and good at basketball Michael Jordan is, in a culture that worships those things. He is like unto a god.

This is perfect material for director Ben Affleck, a hokey filmmaker, always underscoring the big emotional moment in a literal-minded way that would make more sense if he were an undergrad film-school tyro. Affleck questions nothing about old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking practices, insane American ideology, or any rote cultural shit that’s lying around available for use. When his protagonist needs a Michael Jordan miracle to save his career, “All I Need Is a Miracle” blasts on the soundtrack as a vertiginous high-angle shot sweeps down on the crucial encounter.

The protagonist is a typical underdog hero in American films — that is, not really an underdog at all, doing just fine, with wads of money to blow on gambling, but still not successful in corporate hotshot terms. He’s Sonny Vaccaro, a supposedly brilliant basketball aficionado brought on board at Nike to goose up its basketball shoe division. Played by Matt Damon — in his earnest, pudgy mode — Vaccaro is failing at his job in that lovably fake won’t-go-by-the-book way that is obviously going to turn into spectacular success for those who persevere and work hard in American movies. He’s got a hunch that Nike should blow its entire basketball division budget on one up-and-coming eighteen-year-old player, MJ himself, with an athletic shoe designed just for him.

Since we know how this all turns out, watching the film is a process of soaking in ’80s nostalgia (look how clunky the landline phones were; jeez, those neon-colored jogging outfits were terrible) while getting the behind-the-scenes story of naysayers getting persuaded.

I myself have no ’80s nostalgia. I was there, and it all sucked horribly. So I was stuck with the tale of the naysayers. Those include Nike head Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), marketing exec Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and Jordan’s agent, the splenetic David Falk (Chris Messina).

But there’s no pushback from Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), the company’s shoe designer, who just wants to create a groundbreaking new shoe. George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), a friend of Vaccaro’s who coached Michael Jordan in the 1984 Olympic basketball team, weighs in with encouragement. And field rep Howard White (Chris Tucker, back after a seven-year absence from the screen) is the lone believer in Vaccaro. Plus, he’s the one of the few black people working at Nike, so he’s key to getting access to Michael Jordan’s parents, especially his mother Deloris (Viola Davis), who’s the real brains of the outfit.

Air is the kind of film that mocks Phil Knight’s faux-Buddhist corporate koans and then solemnly evokes them as seeds of wisdom at the same time, using them as chapter headings within the film: “Perfect results count — not a perfect process,” “Your job isn’t done until the job is done,” etc. Vaccaro shames Knight into going along with him by repeatedly referring back to his original Nike-founding visionary brilliance.

The first script by Alex Convery, Air has been kicking around Hollywood for some time on those favorite-unmade-screenplay lists. The reteamed Damon and Affleck, whose Good Will Hunting (1997) script first made them Hollywood sensations, made revisions that included notes from Michael Jordan himself. The film’s a clunky crowd-pleaser going over well so far, with excellent reviews and solid box-office numbers.

And, admittedly, it’s got some good things going for it, such as Viola Davis’s performance conveying the stoic, daunting strength of the Jordan-family matriarch. There are some nice moments of humor here and there. There’s even enough audience savvy behind the scenes to give the corporation-loving film a slight pro-worker angle, making billionaire Michael Jordan the representative hardscrabble athlete to take power away from both corporate heads and team owners in getting an unprecedented financial boon from an endorsement — a percentage of each shoe sold.

But to be clear, it’s an absolutely deranged film, made to seem folksy for easy consumption. If the world survives long enough to look back on our era, Air will be a cultural artifact to gaze upon in horror and ask, “What was wrong with those people?”

There’s a climactic scene, played entirely straight in a creepy close-up on Matt Damon’s bug-eyed face, when he’s persuading Michael Jordan to take the deal by telling him he’s going to be bigger than Jesus, essentially, in the world history of greatness. No one will ever forget him! He matters more than anything ever! But his road will be so hard, as it is for all rich, famous, godlike people! Is he willing to pay the price of being so much more important than everyone else? (Cue the fast-forward montage of real-life Michael Jordan low points involving death and scandal and, I don’t know, basketball games not won or something.)

A sane person hearing this psychotic suck-up pitch would’ve fled the room. Which just shows what lunatics all these success-story fuckers are. Sonny Vaccaro and Michael Jordan actually read this script and approved it. Critics watch this scene and rave. Audiences tear up and applaud.

It’s a movie about a shoe that sold extremely well — a triumph of marketing.

Not that you can’t make a movie about shoes. Just for extreme contrast, let me remind you that Cesare Zavattini, the scriptwriter most associated with the Italian neorealist movement, having written the Vittorio De Sica films Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, and Umberto D., argued that an ideal film would be entirely about the purchase of a pair of shoes. He wrote an essay, called “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” in which he defended the neorealist movement from its critics and defined its goals. The moral responsibility of cinema, he argued, was to reveal lived reality in all its “dailyness,” especially among the working poor, where lived reality is so often ignored.

The essay suggests that, by closely observing the “adventure” of buying shoes, the workings of entire social systems become manifest:

A woman goes to a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. . . .

The woman is buying the shoes. What is her son doing at the same moment? What are people doing in India that could have some rela­tion to [the manufacturing] of the shoes? The shoes cost 7,000 lire. How did the woman happen to have 7,000 lire? How hard did she work for them, what do they represent for her?

And the bargaining shopkeeper, who is he? What relationship has developed between these two human beings? What do they mean, what interests are they defending, as they bargain? The shopkeeper also has two sons.

Doesn’t it seem incredible now to think that there was once a hugely influential film movement that had these kinds of goals? Even Hollywood honchos in the 1940s were transfixed and tried to set up projects with De Sica, though the extreme opposition of values made them impossible.

It’s dizzying to think that there is no widely recognized ethical counterweight to movies like Air, which are embraced as heartwarming success stories we should all admire and even identify with in some mad way. Because, though we can’t all be gods like Michael Jordan, surely we can all suck up to gods, put gods’ imagery on shit, and sell it to suckers everywhere.