The sneaker is arguably the essential fashion development of the past fifty years. Sneaker shops pepper every city, sneakerheads declare legendary kicks ‘grailed’ (as in the Holy Grail), and Air Jordans are the sturdiest investment in the shoe economy. So where is the prestige sneaker drama? The sneakerhead’s answer to a Coco Chanel biopic? From director Ben Affleck and Amazon Studios, Air aims to fill that hole with corporate synergy.
The film opens with a fatty montage of eighties pop media iconography. Old MTV footage dissolves into Bono, Ghostbusters, and an Apple Macintosh commercial. 2023 recedes from view as the film submerges us in a tank of nostalgic Americana. The year is 1984. Reagan is in. The economy is up. “Greed, for want of a better word, is good.”
Cut to Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) perched on the edge of a high school basketball game. He’s a schlubby guy. Matt Damon does good schlubby. Sonny is in marketing at Nike, and he’s a basketball fanatic. His job is to sign popular players to endorsement deals, but there are problems. For one, Nike isn’t cool. Nike makes running shoes and running shoes aren’t cool. Adidas is cool. Two, Nike doesn’t have the majority market share in basketball shoes. That’s Converse. Three, Nike is looking to close the basketball shoe division if business doesn’t pick up. The way things are going, Sonny could soon be out of the one job he’s qualified to do.
Air tells the true story of how Sonny Vaccaro signed Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal with Nike and invented the Air Jordan, revolutionising the economics of pro sport. The tale of how underdog Sonny bucked the rules by bypassing Jordan’s agent and going straight to his mother, Deloris, who Viola Davis portrays as an unassailable stoic. And the myth of how Nike, with proudly American vision, enabled this to happen. The film turns on Sonny’s ability to recognise greatness. He’s a basketball Nostradamus who can predict a player’s career from debut to death. He knows who will make it to NBA stardom and who will end up a second string player in an international league. Consequently, there’s little question that Sonny, Nike, and Jordan will exit victorious.
A soothing quality flows through any Hollywood film which signposts its tale this unambiguously. It’s not about history. It’s about seduction. And Air seduces, with glistening crane shots and throbbing eighties synth bangers. The story is so superfluous that two consecutive scenes have Sonny getting a pep talk from an old friend. One would have sufficed, but then we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy a smoke-filled bar and an eighties office in the rain.
Like many biopics, the script stuffs the dialogue with nuggets of trivia. We are told about the origins of the swoosh and the meaning of “Just Do It”. We learn that Sonny founded the first college All-Star Game and that basketball coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) owns the original text of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The soundtrack is full of pulls from the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen, expensive luxuries like a pair of Air Jordans. Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, and Matthew Maher are premier picks for supporting roles, but there is no meaningful indication that any of these Nike executives have home lives or hobbies. Celebrated Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) likes to run. I suppose that’s something.
Director Affleck gives brief lip service to this feel-good story’s moral challenges. Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), the Springsteen-loving manager, has an apologetic monologue about Nike’s use of sweatshop labour. Rather than complicate the story, this monologue takes such responsibility out of the viewer’s hands. “We’ll worry about the ethics so you can get on with buying the shoes”.
Sonny’s prescience about the future of basketball leaps beyond the winking one-liners of most period films. Maybe the real Sonny Vaccaro did predict Michael Jordan’s domination of the game and basketball’s shift into America’s most popular sport. But by positioning Sonny, and to a lesser extent Deloris, as having access to 21st-century knowledge, the film allows us to identify with them. They know what’s coming, as do we.
With any historical drama, it’s worth asking what this story has to say to the present. It takes little stretch of the imagination to see how Air appealed to the executives at Amazon Studios. The film’s triangulation of Nike, Converse, and Adidas echoes Amazon’s rivalry with Netflix and Disney. The presentation of Nike as an underdog, a ‘disruptor’, massages Amazon’s media identity as a fresh alternative to traditional retail.
Ultimately, Air is about desire. The desire for power (Nike), the desire for greatness (Michael Jordan), and the desire for style (Air Jordan). When we finally get to see the iconic sneaker, after ninety minutes of build-up, the moment is scored to music lifted from a striptease scene in the eighties erotic thriller Body Double. It’s an obscure needle drop that signals how we’re supposed to feel about the reveal. This shoe is a sexy lady.
Air is smooth like butter, a two-hour commercial for an undeniably desirable product. Because we know what’s coming, the stakes are never too high. Instead, Air lets you get comfortable in a warm bath of style, beats, and nostalgia. Air isn’t going to give you much to chew over, but as far as pleasure goes, it’s a slam dunk.