Though it’s not a new phenomenon, Sneakerheads and the culture of collecting and selling sneakers is currently at its height. Here in NYC, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can accidentally be trampled by a crowd of fanatics rushing across the street to line up for their chance at a new release of retro kicks. While the focus of Ben Affleck’s new film, Air, is not a dissection of the collecting culture, it certainly is the story of the creation of the single shoe that started an empire.
The 1984 NBA draft is fast approaching. It’s become a standard business practice at this point for shoe companies to enter into exclusive spokesmanship deals with the new players that are prophesied to be superstars in the game. Nike at the time wasn’t a front runner for prospective players to sign on with. Their brand was prevalent in the world of running, they weren’t the powerhouse they are today. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) was hired to the basketball sports division to use his unique insight of the game and how it is played to help sign the right person for Nike’s new ‘84/’85 season line.
Michael Jordan was projected to go 3rd in the 1984 draft to the Chicago Bulls. And while it’s a high draft pick, people weren’t thinking he was going to be the dominant superstar he became. Sonny saw it, though. The problem is, Jordan had no interest in signing with Nike. He had clear intentions on inking a deal with Adidas, with Converse as a back-up if that deal didn’t come through. Without a chance in the world of signing the young player, Sonny would need to take a shot in the dark at a bonkers plan to get his deal done. A deal that would forever change the face of sports marketing.
As a director, Ben Affleck has the ability to do one thing without question. He finds a way to make the known become tense. Everyone knows going into Air that Jordan signs with Nike. The Air Jordan is probably the most famous sneaker in the history of the world, by name alone. So, how come viewers can become so invested in a story we know will work out? The Nike we’re introduced to in the film has a competitive, come from behind attitude and it’s mirrored in the trials and tribulations of Sonny and his team. The ultimate conglomerate and market giant that Nike became doesn’t factor into the story being told.
The journey plotted in the script isn’t perfect though. Our introduction to Sonny flashes insights into a gambling addiction that at first is meant more of a sign of his willingness to take a chance and his distinct insider knowledge that gives him an edge over others when it comes to breaking down the game. However, later, his gambling is brought up to mirror the more traditional pitfalls of playing the game. Yet, in that instance it feels like a cliche throwaway meant to insult and bring Sonny down a peg or two…never to be mentioned again. The metaphor never really fits into the puzzle the way it should and was more of a crutch than a pertinent look into the man’s life.
Air’s performances are a great highlight. Barring the overly cocky and exuberant David Falk (Jordan’s agent played by Chris Messina), everyone hands in some brilliantly nuanced performances. No one is looking to try and knock it out of the park with some overly emotional Oscar bait. These are actors playing as real to life as they can. And the decision to never see Michael’s face and really have him more as the unseen McGuffin was a stroke of brilliance. I wouldn’t mark anyone down just yet for an early Oscar ballot, but it’s kudos all around.
Air is a strange movie in the end. It’s a slice of time exploration into a world that shouldn’t really matter to any of the people outside the events; yet it documents the start of a worldwide movement for both athletes and their fans. Even if it is punctuated with too much 80s nostalgia, it all comes together in the end.
Final Grade: B
Here’s the trailer of the film.