If the Shoe Fits

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck score big in their modern Cinderella story about one of the greatest underdog victories in sports marketing history

Matt Damon stars as a Nike marketing exec in ‘Air.’

Starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis & Jason Bateman
Directed by Ben Affleck
Rated PG-13

In theaters Wednesday, March 5

Move over, Cinderella, and make way for another shoe story. And this one’s no far-off fairy fable.  

Director Ben Affleck’s earnestly crowd-pleasing Air tells the true tale of how a third-rate sneaker company signed a teenage college basketball phenom, Michael Jordan, and revolutionized everything that followed. One of the most groundbreaking deals in the annals of sports marketing, Nike’s affiliation with Jordan sparked quantum changes in pro sports as well as the realms of fashion, celebrity endorsements and lifestyle.  

It catapulted Nike to the top of the sports-shoe pyramid and eventually made Jordan—today widely recognized as pro basketball’s GOAT, its greatest player of all time—an ever-growing multi-million mountain of moola, dwarfing what he ever earned in his entire NBA career as a superstar for the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards.

Air is a rah-rah, rousing feel-good story about taking risks, following gut instincts, sweating bullets and scoring big. It’s like sports in that regard, but it’s not really a “sports drama.” It spends very little time courtside. Most of the plays we see are as business execs watch grainy scouting tapes. The central figure of the story, Jordan, appears only briefly, a silent sentinental seen almost always from behind. We never get a good look at his face, and we hear him speak only one word, “Hello,” over a telephone.

He’s a looming presence without really being present. It’s a bold, completely effective choice from director Affleck, who knows that dwelling too much on Jordan as a character would take us away from the “sole” of the story and the people who made it happen.

So Jordan, and the game of basketball itself, are sidelined as movie focuses, instead, on the human drama—fathers, sons, workaholic businessmen and one super-savvy mom who connected all the dots, against all the odds. It’s like Moneyball crossed with Jerry Maguire and a dash of David and Goliath.

Ben Affleck is Nike’s philosophical founder, Phil Knight.

It opens in the heart of the go-go, greed-is-good 1980s as we learn how Nike is on the financial ropes, floundering far behind its competitors, Adidas and Converse. The board of directors is pressuring CEO and founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to cut corners and slash budgets. Advertising honcho Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) bemoans that “George Orwell was right: 1984 is a terrible year—sales are down, growth is down.”

And Nike is down. But Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), in the company’s basketball scouting division, has a bold brainstorm to turn things around…maybe. He wants to use the company’s entire marketing budget to lure Michael Jordan, then only 18, into an endorsement deal, custom designing a shoe that “fits” him in more ways than one, footwear that will become his emblem, his lifestyle, his legacy.

Sonny knows that if his gamble doesn’t roll out a winner, he’ll be out of a job. But he’s all-in. “We build a shoe line just around him. He doesn’t wear the shoe, he is the shoe,” he says. “I’m willing to bet my career on one guy.”

The shoe, of course, would be the Air Jordan, so named for Jordan’s jaw-dropping leaping abilities as a prolific scorer.

Viola Davis plays the mother of teenage basketball phenom Michael Jordan.

Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother, a shrewd negotiator who innately understands the longterm value her supremely gifted son brings to the table. Marlon Wayans is George Raveling, a superstar basketball coach who only appears briefly but offers some enduring words of inspiration from his past. Comedian Chris Tucker steals his scenes as a Nike marketer with some valuable insights for Vaccaro, especially in dealing with Black athletes. “Always go the mamas,” he tells him. “The mamas run stuff.”

Chris Messina has some spicy comedic bite as a Jordan’s hard-driving agent, David Falk. Matthew Maher is the shoe designer who comes up with the iconic, inspired design for a product that would ultimately travel far, far above and beyond the basketball court.

It’s a juicy, Oscar-bait ensemble, but Damon’s Vaccaro is the heart and soul of the story, the bedraggled underdog who rallies his Nike cohorts—his teammates—behind his big, high-stakes push to land a legend…and help create another one in the process.

Air is Affleck’s fifth project as a director, and it brims with the confidence and slam-dunk sure-footedness he’s developed in The Town, the Oscar-nominated Argo, Gone Baby Gone and Live by Night. The film is rich with ‘80s period-piece touches (handheld video games, Trivial Pursuit, VCRs, running suits) and a soundtrack of expertly curated MTV-era hits (“Blister in the Sun,” “Money for Nothing,” “Born in the USA,” “Time After Time”). It marks the first project of the production company, Artists Infinity, Affleck formed with Damon, his childhood bestie from the ‘hood in Massachusetts.

This is the ninth film in which Damon and Affleck have appeared together, beginning with uncredited appearances as Fenway Park extras in another sports-related human drama, Field of Dreams. They have a natural, unforced ease onscreen together, a natural stride that feels like, well, two old friends who’ve marched along the same path together for years, often as collaborators, doing what they always dreamed of doing, now getting to do it in Hollywood’s big leagues.

And in Air, they’ve found a shoe—and a shoe story—that feels like it fits them perfectly, a cinematic Cinderella’s slipper accented with the Nike swoosh.

—Neil Pond


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