Air: Courting a Legend

In 1984, Michael Jordan was selected fourth in the NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls.  (Yeah, I know.  Fourth?  But he was.)  The top three picks had already signed basketball shoe contracts with the industry leaders, Adidas and Converse.  Jordan was wavering between the two.  On the one hand, most of the big stars of the day (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas) worse Converse.  But Adidas was big competition.  Nike was known then for their running shoes.

But Nike salesman Sonny Vaccaro (another excellent performance from the always endearing Matt Damon) saw something in Jordan, and knew he had to land a contract with the up-and-coming star, even if that meant sometimes working outside the company rules and structure.  Ben Affleck’s latest film, “Air: Courting a Legend” tells the story of the Nike bigwigs (and Vaccaro specifically) who changed not only the athletic shoe market, but American pop culture in general.

Early best scene

Watching a bunch of marketing geeks discuss athletic shoes for two hours may sound dull; “Air” is anything but.  Alex Convery’s original screenplay sets up the story effectively, but then lands its most compelling scene early.  Asked by a colleague why Nike should put all its eggs in one basket and offer just one contract to just one incoming NBA player, Vaccaro shows footage (VHS footage, mind you) of the final game of the 1982 NCAA tournament – when Jordan was just a freshman.  The opposing team (Georgetown) led by one point in the final seconds.  North Carolina had the ball.  North Carolina coach Dean Smith was known to favor his seniors.  Expecting the play to go through tournament MVP James Worthy, Georgetown had him well-guarded, leaving open the talented freshman.  Jordan hit the final shot, and North Carolina had won its first championship in a quarter century.

As Vaccaro shows the tape, he points out how relaxed Jordan appears.  He knows the play will run through him, and he cherishes the moment.  He has 100% certainty he will make the shot.  Vaccaro points out there have been very few players in history that exude this kind of confidence.  He sees something in Jordan, and makes it his mission to land that contract.

Not enough basketball scenes

I wish “Air” had featured more of these basketball-savvy sequences.  Instead, what we get in the middle of the film are too many scenes of Nike brass shooting down Vaccaro, putting up walls, telling him why it can’t be done.  Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent David Falk particularly overplays his hand.  Affleck himself plays Nike founder Phil Knight, whose early arguments with Damon recall their best work in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” – although again, a little of this goes a long way.  “Air’s” best supporting performance comes from Jason Bateman as Nike board chairman Rob Strasser, who shares the film’s one tender moment with Vaccaro about halfway through.

Jordan’s mother

Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother Deloris, who handles the early negotiations – before allowing anyone from Nike to even meet her son.  Vaccaro wins Mrs. Jordan’s trust not by espousing her son as the greatest player in history, but by simply advising her what to ask the company presidents of Adidas and Converse when the Jordans meet with them.  When her questions are answered as Vaccaro had predicted, she begins to take Nike’s offer a little more seriously (although Michael himself was still not sold on Nike).  This is another great performance from Davis, particularly in its subtlety.  We might assume Jordan’s mother to be overpowering and demanding in her negotiations with Nike, but that is not the case – at least in “Air.”

The shoe designer

In an interesting inclusion, we even meet Peter Moore, Nike’s creative director, who designed the iconic shoe.  Played by character actor Matthew Maher as a layout-and-blueprint geek (Is there such a thing?), we realize credit must be spread around the entire Nike family.  Even Affleck’s Knight (who initially comes off as arrogant and heavy-handed) deserves recognition for establishing the laid-back Pacific Coast culture pervading Nike headquarters.

Affleck lets his actors act

As a director, Affleck is known for bringing out the best in his actors.  This is a common trait of actors who also direct, such as Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood.  The antithesis would be Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson, who are known for visioning very precise and unique pictures, and then inserting actors into the various roles.  Occasionally, they would latch onto a great actor and coax out his best performances (Peter Sellers for Kubrick, Daniel Day-Lewis for Anderson), but for the most part, their work shows off their directorial skill.  By contrast, Affleck’s casts are allowed to shine throughout his films, and that is certainly the case here.

Interest level up

For a story whose ending we all know, Affleck keeps the interest level up throughout the nearly two-hour running time, as we wonder how on earth Nike is going to pull off the Jordan contract.  Damon’s passionate speech to the Jordans in the Nike conference room is a little predictable, but Damon handles it as well as any actor.  Stick around for the ending titles.  We all know the Air Jordan shoe changed American culture, but the facts Affleck shows at the end are fascinating.

Affleck nails 1984

Affleck also does an excellent job capturing 1984.  The cars, the magazines, the pop culture references, Mary Lou Retton on the Wheaties box, Mr. T’s image at the local 7-11.  “Air” screams 1984.  And save for reminding us of ZZ Topp’s “Legs,” it’s an absolute kick to revisit the music of the era.  My only complaint here is that while Mike & The Mechanics’ “All I Need is a Miracle” certainly fits the narrative of the film, it wasn’t released until 1986.

I also enjoyed revisiting the 1984 draft.  Nike’s hometown team, the Portland Trailblazers, selected second that year, and chose Sam Bowie – yes, ahead of Michael Jordan!  Some of the Nike brass have an interest in John Stockton, but in 1984 no one had heard of Gonzaga University, so a Stockton contract was not pursued.  I even enjoyed reminiscing about the mention of Vern Fleming, the Pacers’ 1984 first-round pick.

Just one complaint

Air” is a very good film.  It has “crowd pleaser” written all over it.  But there are certain aspects that keep it from rising to the level of greatness, particularly the overkill scenes of the barriers Nike placed on Vaccaro’s idea of landing Michael Jordan – at the expense of more basketball intel.  I would have liked to seen more analysis of Jordan’s game.  Why was he so coveted?  There are ways to flesh out this screenplay.  Affleck and Convery take the easy way out by leaning on too many scenes of people yelling at Vaccaro.

Air” is not as strong as Affleck’s best work (“Argo”), but again, it’s a very good film, and it begs to be seen by a mass audience.  With a couple caveats, I recommend it.





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