As a teenager growing up in the Milwaukee area, it was difficult to miss the magic Michael Jordan brought to the court as the Chicago Bulls made championship history. To be sure, Milwaukee has its own NBA team; however, its close proximity to the Chicago metro area meant there were just as many Bulls fans in Milwaukee as in Chicago. Jordan, whose talent analysts missed during his NBA draft, wouldn’t be who he eventually became without his talents. As history has proven time and again, it isn’t talent alone in any sport that makes the player. It also comes down to endorsements. Ben Affleck returns to the director’s chair in Air, the story of Sonny Vaccaro, the sales executive at Nike who saw Jordan’s potential and took the leap of faith.
Matt Damon plays Vaccaro in a role that fits the actor to a ‘T.’ Damon drives Vaccaro as a determined man, not just when asked early in the film which player on the rookie list he thinks Nike should go after, but also outside the office. His trade snark plays wonders in character and in service to the story, working wonders with the interpersonal conversations with Affleck’s Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, Jason Bateman’s Rob Strasser, and Marlon Wayans as George Raveling.
Affleck demonstrated his historical filmmaking abilities with Argo a few years back, and he doubled down with Air, a complex story framed with a simple socioeconomic theme. His instincts allow the types of interpersonal connections between the cast to thrive.
As portrayed in the film, Vaccaro could be considered a maverick in as much as Nike was a maverick at the time. Air is ultimately about betting on the right horse at the right time, and it makes a compelling argument for sticking with your guns. History would prove Vaccaro not once but twice.
In 1984, Nike was third in sales behind Adidas and Converse and needed to release its next big shoe. Historically, it was interesting to see who the other two big shoe companies backed and who thought they had Jordan in their proverbial bag. Nike was hit on lean times with their running shoes. Knight had brought in Vaccaro to pull a massive hat trick. Vaccaro’s task was not just limited to convincing Jordan that Nike was the right fit for him but also to convince his team that Jordan was the right fit for them.
Before the story gets to Vaccaro’s various attempts to convince his colleagues and the company that Jordan is worth going after, Convery sets up the character’s background, defining Vaccaro’s unique skillset and seeing windows of opportunity that others would miss. In the office, as Rob Strasser, Bateman lays the stakes on the line for Vaccaro. I found it interesting how reserved the actor and character were, but Bateman’s seriousness hits home when played against Damon. As David Falk, Jordan’s agent, Chris Messina also plays off Damon equally. Most of the conversations between the two characters happen on the phone. The way Affleck sets up their scenes together, it’s as if they are in the same room.
Vaccaro, who bucks the system, was determined to prove he was right and meets with Air‘s MVP, Viola Davis, as Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mom and protector. Showing up on Jordan’s property unannounced, he convincingly manages a meet with Mrs. Jordan in a lively conversation. In each actor’s eyes, the movie does a lot of the talking, a hat tip to Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson, whose task included capturing the actors retelling a historical story and catching the air of the mid-1980s and its analog technology.
That initial meeting between Mrs. Jordan and Vaccaro was a strong point in the film, but it wasn’t Air‘s most vital moment. That honor is reserved for the contract awarding, which happens by telephone. Convery sets that call up in a rather unique way, making Vaccaro’s reaction to Mrs. Jordan’s proclamation much sweeter. In a rare twist, Davis one-ups Damon in reference to an early part of the film. There are no bluffs here – the stakes for Nike and Jordan were sky-high. Damon, and especially Affleck’s directing abilities, made the three-point shot with seconds left on the buzzer. I tell you, it was a nail-biter!
There was quite a bit that I did not know about Vaccaro going into the movie, nor the then-unheard-of deal Jordan made with Nike. It changed the face of endorsements forever.
Ben Affleck’s Air is the ticket, whether you’re a sports junkie into business practices of the period or just like watching an all-around solid story with an affable cast.
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Alex Convery
Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis
R, 112 minutes, MGM/Amazon Studios