The machinations of big business get a surprisingly upbeat look in Air, the story of how Nike got an up-and-coming sports player to their product and dominate the market.
Nike basketball shoe division executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is struggling to find the budget and the marquee player to save the floundering division. Over loud objections from VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Nike CEO Philip Knight (director Ben Affleck), Sonny pushes hard for a bigger budget and pursuit of third-round NBA draft pick Michael Jordan.
Jordan leans strongly towards rival company Adidas, but Sonny is convinced that Jordan is worth pursuing. Coming up with the idea of building the shoe around Jordan rather than merely attaching a particular style to him, Sonny is relentless. He even, again over loud objections from Jordan's agent David Falk (Chris Messina) goes over everyone's head and makes his pitch to Jordan's mother, Deloris (Viola Davis).
Mrs. Jordan surprisingly agrees to have Nike court her son, as do Adidas and Converse. Now Sonny, Strasser and fellow Nike executive Howard White (Chris Tucker) must come up with both a pitch and a shoe to get Jordan to sign. Will shoe designer Pete Moore (Matthew Maher) get his "Air Jordans" to win over the young player? Will Nike outwit and outlast bigger, wealthier companies to be like Mike?
Air, on the surface, looks like a surprisingly boring story. Who could build up interest around shoes? What makes Air interesting is not so much the procedures to get Michael Jordan's endorsement. Rather, it is the humans behind the product. Each figure, from the driven Sonny to the eccentric Knight, have their own motivations in this mad pursuit of the unobtainable. While no doubt motivated by rich financial rewards, Air also shows that qualities like pride in work and desire to achieve in their own world can be equal drivers.
Perhaps the most moving story is that of Strasser. He can yell and be stubborn in his obstinance with Sonny, but we also see the people behind the marketing. Via Alex Convery's screenplay, Bateman gives a quiet monologue relating how his job is the only entry he has to visitations to his daughter post-divorce. Even if the company shuts down the basketball division, he says, he would continue buying a pair of shoes to bring her.
That and another silent scene where Sonny sees all the employees at their jobs brings to focus that the intricacies of finance and marketing have people behind them. They depend on these jobs to provide for themselves and their families. The jobs also give them a purpose, and it is that focus on the individual that pushes Air into a strong, smart film.
Even Mrs. Jordan sees that the Nike deal is not about dollars and cents alone, but his worth. His actual worth. Air reveals that things like respect, the individual's value and commitment to an idea and ideal is as important as what the cash results are.
I think that Ben Affleck is a better director than actor. Out of his filmmaking efforts, only Live by Night has been a failure. Affleck will almost always cast himself in his own films (Gone Baby Gone being the exception, though to be fair his brother Casey is the lead). This time, he is the supporting character, and this time Affleck did better than when he is the center of attention. His Phil Knight is casually eccentric, meaning that we hear bits about Buddhism but nothing that shows his offbeat brand of genius.
While not a bad performance, Affleck shrinks next to the rest of the cast. Damon brings that everyman quality as Sonny, determined, driven, aware he is right but with no one listening. Bateman and Davis are the real strong figures here. The former portrays Strasser as committed but not eager to take chances. The latter displays a quiet strength coupled with a shrewd mind.
Kudos should also go to Messina, whose rants had audiences in laughter but for the right reasons. Unsung is Julius Tennon as James Jordan, Michael's father. Amiable, affable and eager, he is a jolly figure throughout the film.
I think Air was maybe longer than it should have been (it runs almost two hours). It also does all but hide Jordan (we never see his face and he says three words: "Bulls colors" on seeing his new shoe and "Hello" over the phone at the end) but those are minor complaints. Well-paced, well-acted and with a story that grows on you, Air may not make me want to be like Mike, but you do end up wanting to cross over into the world of Jordan.