A shoe is just a shoe. Until someone steps into it. That’s Nike’s mantra, repeated by the man who designs the shoes, the man who markets the shoes, and the man who is on the cusp of revolutionizing them. A shoe is just a shoe: A hollow, empty vessel void of personality. That’s an odd mantra to hang a movie on, but it fits Air like a, well, a shoe.

Air, the newly released feature based on the story of Nike developing the Air Jordan shoe line, opens in 1984 and goes to great pains to ensure you never forget. The details: Nike is a distant third to Converse and Adidas in the basketball shoe market. Nike is a running company—still called jogging at this juncture—and Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is the basketball guru tasked with turning his division around by scouting future talent while Nike can still afford them. The top five draft picks are out of their reach, so marketing director Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) implores his team to work on signing three, maybe four, lesser-known, less-expensive picks. He’s hoping Nike can ink a deal with someone like John Stockton while he’s still a kid from Gonzaga and cross his fingers that he’ll turn into a, well, a John Stockton.

Are you getting that Air is about as obvious as naming Michael Jordan’s signature shoe, Air Jordan? Or that a movie about the creation of the Air Jordan line should be called Air? That’s pretty much what we’re working with here. In addition to bludgeoning you with era-appropriate needle drops and relentless references to ’80s pop culture, Air never stops winking at the audience. Even the mention of Stockton’s name elicits comments along the lines of “John Stockton? Never heard of ‘em. Who’s he?” And, “Gonzaga, isn’t that a vocational school?”

Back to Sonny: He doesn’t want John Stockton, and he doesn’t want to spread the money around with three or four guys. He wants to spend it all on one player, one shoe, one future: Michael Jordan.

Viola Davis and Julius Tennon in Air. Images courtesy Amazon Studios.

Even in ’84, everyone knew Jordan would be good, maybe great. But Sonny might be the only one at Nike who actually believes it. So his job is to convince Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) that Jordan will be great for Nike, and Jordan’s mom, Deloris (Viola Davis), that Nike will be great for Jordan. It’s one of those obvious ideas everyone backs because it’s destined to be great. And everyone at Nike, from Knight to Howard White (Chris Tucker) down to the shoe’s designer, Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), is just itching for a piece of that greatness.

And if that sounds like a compelling story, reader, you’re not wrong. Air, written by Alex Convery and directed by Affleck, is also pretty damn funny and features solid performances from Bateman, Damon, and Davis. It’s just that the script’s obsession with greatness starts to tip the proceedings into parody. And a low-budget one at that. In one scene, Sonny meets with George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) to discuss how best to approach mother and father Jordan with the idea. Raveling launches into a story about the time he saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech—that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech. Raveling’s lesson will echo later in the movie when Sonny has to give a speech of his own, but you might miss the whole point because the camera is distractingly refocusing and reframing during Raveling’s speech. I guess they forgot to do another take for safety.

Then there’s the bit about Knight, the billionaire Buddhist who lives about as on-trend as you can in ’84. He lords over Nike with ten principles—commandments?—but is quick to puncture any notion of intent. The name of the company? That’s as empty as those shoes. Knight picked it because marketing research told him people like four-letter words. That whole “goddess of victory” thing: Happy coincidence. Same thing with the swoosh; it means more to the people buying it than the people selling it or making it. Oh, and about those faceless people churning out Nikes by the thousands, Rob knows he’s supposed to be ambivalent about where Nikes are manufactured, but it rubs him the wrong way. Not enough that he won’t stop bringing his estranged daughter brand new Nikes every time the courts allow him to see her. One man’s suffering is another man’s opportunity to mend his broken family.

You know, for a movie that’s as deep as a sidewalk puddle after a spring rain, there’s a lot of critical thinking going on in Air. It just doesn’t amount to much. Instead, Affleck hopes that with enough good acting, snappy dialogue, and characters trying to elevate their day-to-day into something timeless, you’ll overlook that Air is an empty vessel obsessed with money—who earns it and who keeps it—and comes up with a couple of reasons to validate why some have so much, and the rest have so little.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Air (2023)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Alex Convery
Produced by Ben Affleck, Madison Ainley, Jason Michael Berman, Matt Damon, David Ellison, Peter Guber, Jeff Robinov, Jesse Sisgold, Jon Weinbach
Starring: Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Chris Tucker, Matthew Maher
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 112 minutes, Opens April 5, 2023

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