Air Smells More Like Victory Than Old Sneakers

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Normally, this very writer has to harvest the chestnuts to roast when it comes to identifying life lessons in a movie. Not here. Air spells out its angles loud and clear for us. The Amazon Studios film does so by methodically highlighting “The 10 Principles of Nike,” a internal memo reportedly written in 1977 that became the ethical and motivational backbone of the then-fledgling company. The famed list reads as follows:

  1. Our business is change. 
  2. We’re on offense. All the time. 
  3. Perfect results count — not a perfect process. Break the rules: fight the law. 
  4. This is as much about battle as about business. 
  5. Assume nothing. Make sure people keep their promises. Push yourselves, push others. Stretch the possible. 
  6. Live off the land. 
  7. Your job isn’t done until the job is done. 
  8. Dangers: 
    • Bureaucracy 
    • Personal ambition 
    • Energy takers vs. energy givers 
    • Knowing our weaknesses 
    • Don’t get too many things on the platter 
  9. It won’t be pretty. 
  10. If we do the right things, we’ll make money damn near automatic. 

They’re perfect, and they are everywhere inside the film. Each invocation from debut screenwriter Alex Convery and Oscar-winning director Ben Affleck makes for an excellent framing thread of thematic connection. Air’s recounted corporate history of Nike courting incoming NBA rookie Michael Jordan for a shoe deal hit every one of those numbered pillars. The real-life trials and tribulations, both business and personal, ran the full gamut. Air, as a movie, assuredly heaps the fist-pumping embellishment to seal its own deal to entertain.

A man smiles with his feet up talking on a phone.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

The year is 1984, arguably the highest peak of American pop culture as shown in an opening credits montage of cherished arts, athletics, and politics. The Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike Inc. run by Phil Knight (Affleck, calling his own number) is making respectable money as a running shoe company. Nike, however, is a distant third in basketball shoe sales behind the iconic Converse and the international crossover appeal of Adidas. Matching Principle #6, Director of Marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman)—the rumored original author of those famous principles—is granted a meager $250,000 budget to sign a handful of mid-tier first-round rookies from the 1984 NBA Draft.

Rob’s top lieutenant is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon, mirroring the real Sonny working as a consultant on the film), an executive with a gambling streak who prides himself on the talent scouting side of the marketing game. As the hermit in the video room combing over hours of game footage tapes who lives up to Principle #2, Sonny sees something different and special in Michael Jordan, the third pick of the draft heading the Chicago Bulls. With Principle #1 in mind, he insists that Rob and Phil put their entire quarter-million dollar budget towards securing Jordan as a centerpiece instead of a package of multiple non-headlining players.

An executive stands in front of a whiteboard grid of names in Air.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Coming out of college, Michael Jordan heavily favors Adidas. To woo Michael to even take a meeting out in the Oregon sticks, Sonny takes advice and encouragement from Nike executive Howard White (the long-lost Chris Tucker) and assistant Olympic basketball coach George Raveling (an ageless Marlon Wayans) to go around Michael’s powerful agent David Falk (The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina) and straight to his mother Deloris (Oscar winner Viola Davis) and father James (Julius Tennon of The Woman King) in North Carolina. With respect for the player’s worth and the boldness to take risks, the strategy worked like a charm. Check off Principles #3 through #5.

Along the way, all of this effort based on “having a feeling” could still fail. Adidas could outbid Nike or their own board could scuttle the idea. Sonny’s peers in Air call him out for grasping desperation over vision with “cavalier” risks. But it’s all in merging knowledge with confidence while avoiding the dangers listed in Principle #8. Deloris knows how special her son will become. Michael knows it himself and, from the other side, Sonny knows it too. Now, it’s Nike that needs to know and commit to a feeling as a team of united belief.

A woman talks on her phone in a kitchen.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

The climax of Air is the big pitch when Falk and the Jordan family arrive at the Oregon headquarters. Nike’s key is personalization. Bolstered by Sonny and Rob, master designer Peter Moore (Matt Maher) designs the shoe around the player with rule-breaking colors and the “Air Jordan” naming. This is where Convery’s screenplay rocks the line “A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it” and then twists it like a laced double-knot on a callback by replacing “someone” with “my son” delivered by Viola Davis’s vigorous resolve.

From there Principles #7-9 cap the movie’s buildup to its known result while still pressing the buttons for engaging suspense and luck. Air unfurls a squall of strategic gamesmanship between professional sheep fleecers and a cyclone of charisma emanating from the combined screen appeal of the stacked cast. Molding an uncomplicated assignment, Ben Affleck matched personalities and hired the right people for the right jobs.

A man in a tie screams into a phone in Air.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Matt Damon is no stranger to playing the convincing grinder in any cinematic profession. The same goes for Ben Affleck playing the stoic manic-in-charge or Jason Bateman being the smart alec with the heart of gold. We all know Viola Davis can play a stern maven in her sleep. By the time you reach Chris Tucker as the motormouth schmoozer, Matt Maher as the quirky genius, and Chris Messina as the shouting Long Island asshole, it’s plain to see that no one is leaping out of any comfort zones in Air. The best part is they don’t have to. Together, they are the automatic nature of Principle #10.

On the production side, Air let the cast and crew uncork a wine cellar’s worth of preserved bottles of that era’s vintage looks and attitudes. Up-and-coming costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones (I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Judas and the Black Messiah) and dedicated property master J.P. Jones (The Harder They Fall, Ford v. Ferrari) play with those fashions and fads, right on down to bad polos and the sturdy cars. It’s only April, but prolific music supervisor Andrea von Foerster (Yellowstone, 500 Days of Summer) may have assembled the best movie soundtrack of the year already. The ball is now in Marvel’s regular music supervisor extraordinaire Dave Jordan’s court to top it next month with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. 

The bright style is all well and good, but that is not the reason mainline movie lovers are coming to Air. They are here to watch the “greatest hits” of big names playing within a winning formula. Though he’s been retired for 20 years now, the mystique of Michael Jordan as a sports and cultural icon has not diminished. Affleck received Jordan’s blessing and allowed Air to be a whiff at breathing in that legend again, a draw that cannot be discounted. Likewise, folks are coming to see familiar and reliable movie stars spar. Those curious and poised to watch composures rattled, zingers exchanged, balls busted, and dreams fulfilled get all that and then some in Air. 

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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