There are a good few ways to dramatise Michael Jordan’s landmark $2.5m sponsorship deal with Nike. One is telling the story of a young basketball rookie on the brink of legend status. Another is telling the story of his mother, Deloris Jordan, who refused to see her son exploited by corporate America. Air, Ben Affleck’s Eighties-set sports drama, chooses a third option: to platform the boardroom of largely white marketing men who successfully transformed a human being into a corporate slogan. It’s the least compelling perspective imaginable.
The success of Air depends on how willing audiences are to discard Jordan as a person in favour of Jordan as an idea. This is an individual even the film refers to as the “greatest competitive athlete in history” – but who does not speak, or even appear beyond the occasional glimpse of the back of his head (or that of stand-in Damian Delano Young). Affleck received Jordan’s blessing to make the film, and upheld his request to cast Viola Davis as his mother; the director has also claimed Jordan’s absence in the film is out of respect for the largeness of his legacy.
Whatever the context, though, the effect is still utterly bizarre. Affleck’s camera not only has to awkwardly leap around any scene in which Jordan is a presence in the room, but Alex Convery’s script makes every other character have to proselytise about the uncapturable, once-in-a-lifetime essence and skill of a man who’s then actively hidden away from the audience. It’s like a planet being in denial that it’s orbiting around the sun.
Air, instead, tries to make underdogs out of a major corporation. In 1984, Nike was known primarily as a running shoe, and were struggling to sign an NBA athlete to sponsor their products. Executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), though, chose to place his bets on Jordan, a future Chicago Bulls guard who’d yet to play a game as part of the NBA. He wasn’t the obvious choice, but Vaccaro saw greatness in him. He took the risk and, against protocol, reached out to Jordan’s parents, Deloris (Davis) and James (Julius Tennon). The film, supposedly, celebrates Deloris’s role in championing her son’s talent. But with no Jordan to bounce off of, her role is severely limited. Davis is allowed a single monologue to remind us of the depth of feeling she’s capable of.
The lion’s share of screentime is dedicated to various Nike employees – Vaccaro, co-founder Phil Knight (Affleck), chair Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and future VP of the Jordan Brand Howard White (Chris Tucker). They gather and conspire like they’re about to pull off a heist; they battle with Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina, who plays him like a line of cocaine gained sentience). These actors are all clearly revelling in the opportunity to flex their bravado and land Glengarry Glen Ross-esque lines like “I will eat your f***ing nuts”.
But coupled with a near-fetishistic attachment to the material indicators of the decade – montages of Cabbage Patch Dolls and Wonder Bread, actors in neon lycra, and a blaring jukebox soundtrack – it’s hard to land on a reason for any of this to exist beyond a goosing up of Nike’s own image. And with the Air Jordan brand having already accumulated over $5bn in sales, it doesn’t really seem like it needs the help.
Dir: Ben Affleck. Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis. 15, 112 minutes.
‘Air’ is in cinemas
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