Moving Pictures
Apr 06, 2023, 06:26AM

Matt and Ben Ball Again

Air is a good if slightly disposable crowd pleaser.

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Air, directed by Ben Affleck and reuniting him with his Good Will Hunting/The Last Duel pal Matt Damon, is about how, in 1984, Nike persuaded Michael Jordan to sign an endorsement deal with them, rather than Adidas or Converse. That deal created the most important shoe of all-time, and generated billions of dollars for everyone involved. Jordan made more money from Nike than from playing basketball, and continues to make that money today, two decades after his last retirement.

When a lot of people first heard about the Air project, they wondered why a movie would be made that puts the audiences in the shoes of a corporation—especially one guilty of a long list of bad, bad stuff—while asking us to root for them to clinch a lucrative business deal. The filmmakers, though, make it work. Air is an entertaining crowd-pleaser, with a cool period look and convincing performances by good actors playing, for the most part, well-known people.

It’s got a witty script, written by Alex Convery in the sort of screenplay that the Black List was made for, and rather than a hagiography of Nike, it makes its CEO, Phil Knight, look like an easily-routed buffoon. Also, it turns things around in the third act, with a twist that’s in line with the “athlete empowerment” ethos of today’s NBA. Air lays on the 1984 extremely thick right at the top, with a montage of just about major cultural event of that year, from the reelection of Ronald Reagan to the introduction of the Macintosh to Hulk Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik to "Where's the beef?" But then we’re on to the plot.

In the summer/fall of ’84, Nike is having success with the jogging craze but is a backwater when it comes to basketball, and founder/CEO Knight (played by Affleck) is under pressure to cut costs. But Knight’s “basketball guru” Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) is insistent on the company going after the newly-drafted Michael Jordan, seeing something in the future greatest player of all time. This requires winning a bidding war with rivals Adidas and Converse.

It takes some persuading, including Vaccaro going around Jordan’s abrasive agent David Falk (Chris Messina), and speaking directly to MJ’s mother Delores (Viola Davis). The film doesn’t make Jordan into a real character, but rather a mostly non-speaking entity who sits in meetings where we only see the back of his head. This story has been told before, in every major Jordan biography, as well as The Last Dance, and Vaccaro's own ESPN 30 for 30 documentary from 2015, Sole Man. But I could see the film appealing equally to hardcore fans and those new to the legend of Air Jordan.

As played by Damon, Vaccaro is depicted as a junk food-devouring slob and a degenerate gambler always looking for excuses for side-trips to Vegas. Seeing a heavier version of Damon in a corporate office environment reminds me of his great work in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! Meanwhile, Affleck plays Nike founder Knight as an eccentric weirdo who, even as the CEO of a shoe company, lounges in his office with his bare feet up on his desk. Almost every one of Knight’s scenes has him being talked into things by other people, and giving in.

Davis is fantastic as Delores Jordan, and Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker each get some fun scenes as other Nike executives. But it’s the unheralded character actor Matthew Maher who walks away with several scenes, as Peter Moore, the Nike hand who designed the Air Jordan shoes, in a basement lair in the company’s headquarters.

The script gets too cute at times, and at one point a negotiation over a percentage of revenue becomes important to the plot—but the characters for some reason never discuss exactly what the percentage is. And in one scene Damon is shown buying a Wheaties box with a tribute to the world champion Minnesota Twins on the back—three years too early, since that cover didn’t appear until after the Twins won in ’87. 


Trading Nike vs. Adidas vs. Converse for Nintendo vs. Atari—and with Apple instead of Amazon—Tetris is another story about a business bidding war from the 1980s in which the hero isn't the inventor, but rather the guy who marketed it. The movie about Tetris isn’t a cartoon like The LEGO Movie, in which the characters are all Tetris pieces. Instead, they’re people from different countries who fought over the rights to license and sell the game, back in the waning days of the Cold War. Now streaming on Apple TV+, it's a fun but complex romp about how different factions around the world, from the U.S. to Japan to Britain to the Soviet Union, all wanted a piece of that addictive video game.

Taron Egerton plays Henk Rogers, a Dutch-American living in Japan, and the bulk of the plot has him traveling the globe to secure various rights to that video game. The inventor of the game, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) is a character as well, an inventor in a country where an individual profiting from intellectual property wasn’t really possible.

Also in the film is Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), the villainous British business titan and father of Ghislaine Maxwell, and a man who thought his friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev could win him Tetris. The geopolitical intrigue is interesting, and there are even chase scenes. However, which particular regional rights are being bid on at any given time, and which bids are real or fake, ends up as confusing, and isn’t something I suspect most people watching this will be able to follow.


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