Air, a fast-moving film from Ben Affleck, tells how Michael Jordan came to endorse Nike’s basketball shoes. The movie treats Jordan the way Ben-Hur treated Christ, and it treats the endorsement the way 1776 treated the Declaration of Independence or Shakespeare in Love treated Romeo and Juliet. We get the lowdown on the endearing mere humans who somehow produced the magnificent work, which in this case is a merchandising deal. A good enough subject for a film, and it’s fun watching the characters chase their prize. But the movie (“A Story of Greatness”) expects us to feel like something’s at stake. We’re supposed to be in suspense for the world, not just the characters.
Supposedly about greatness, Air proves good enough as a fun talk film with a cast of old hands. Matt Damon stars as the Nike exec who landed Jordan. Viola Davis stars as Jordan’s mother, who extracts a first-ever percentage on sales for her son and thereby transforms the sports business. Affleck plays support as a bewildered Phil Knight; apparently he wandered in off the parking lot one day and a billion-dollar corporation spontaneously formed around him. Otherwise the film makes good use of character foibles, and Alex Convery’s script has some one-liners you’ve got to love. The cast also includes Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman (frightening wig), Marlon Wayans, Julius Tennon, and even Jay Mohr. Chris Messina, as Jordan’s ravening agent, makes the plate move when eating his dinner. Everyone’s good, Davis is very good, and Damon shows off his wattle in a bravely middle-aged performance.
As a director, Affleck shows an accomplished touch from the montages to the production design. Like All the President’s Men, this is a crowded-office movie. The camera ranges along the cubicles and the jammed desks: papers everywhere, calendars next to the white-box computers of the period. All of it looks very 1980s but also like somebody’s office, not a display. The dialogue does sometime depend on period signifiers of the “It’s a ship called the Titanic” type, as in “Mr. Orwell was right, 1984 is a rough year” and “You know that Springsteen song, ‘Born in the USA’?” “Yeah, everyone knows that song.” There’s the dumb guy who gets a big thing wrong about the future: “No one wants to see Charles Barkley on TV.” There’s the hero getting all excited about a now-outdated gizmo: “The rental car has a phone in it!” But the hero still has the lowdown on the future. “Basketball’s the future,” he says, and also “I like that new slogan,” with the slogan being “Just Do It.”
It's all fun, though just fun and nothing more. For some people maybe it’s hard to imagine a world without Air Jordans. But it’s hard to imagine a world without Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald. Familiar isn’t the same as fundamental. Just because you’ve been sold to, that doesn’t mean you’ve found something. Air Jordans may be very well-designed (the movie has about seven minutes on shoe design, everything else on shoe marketing), but they’re not Michael Jordan. Even a non–sports fan can accept Jordan as being immensely gifted: in his talent, his self-application, and his intelligence. But only a sports dope would think importance passed from his foot to a shoe.
Because if Michael Jordan’s so great, what difference do the shoes make? Without them he’d still be the same all-time champion. With them you’re still whoever the hell you are. They’re not even designed for your foot, they’re designed for his. That makes the shoes better for him, not you. Yet you go ahead and spend your money, not his. Now there’s a fun little movie about the mighty empire that was founded on your schmuckiness. I bet you’ll buy the DVD or something.
Affleck auguries. First, Argo, about hostages escaping Iran in 1980. Now Air, about signing Michael Jordan to Nike in 1984. Next Affleck auteurs Axl, about assembling Guns N‘ Roses in 1985; or Ariel, about Ashman activating animation’s advent all over again in 1987; or Arial, assuming a font artificed in 1982 attracts audience attention.