‘Aerial’ review: Ben Affleck’s Nike Michael Jordan movie is a classic
SXSW: Matt Damon and Viola Davis win the race in the story of Nike’s historic marketing victory.
There are 37 different versions of Air Jordan models available today. From the basketball court to the streets and even the runway, Air Jordans have become a staple of our culture. Director Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ takes audiences inside Nike’s headquarters to experience the story behind the popular shoe built for the most legendary athlete of all time, Michael Jordan.
Set in 1984, Affleck stars as Nike founder Phil Knight. An ambitious, rebellious and passionate leader who likes to live by and repeat Douglas McArthur’s famous quote: “You’re remembered for the rules you break.” Knight thrived on taking risks. During this time, Nike was not as successful as its competitors Adidas and Converse. Their NBA division struggled to sign an athlete to sponsor their gear. The Nike basketball guru responsible for changing the slump was Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon). As Nike’s board of directors questioned the relevance of his position at Nike, Vaccaro sought to sign Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan to literally change the game for Nike and market a brand widely.
In order to sign Jordan, Vaccaro has to get past Michael’s arrogant agent David Falk (hilariously played by Chris Messina). The competitive banter between Vaccaro and Falk is some of the film’s best comedy, and thanks to writer Alex Convery’s intelligent script, audiences will be moved. While Falk is primarily concerned with financial gain, Vaccaro’s approach to their corporate competition is to bypass Jordan’s agent and go face-to-face with his parents, a bold approach his colleagues consider unprofessional. Driving to North Carolina, Vaccaro meets with James R. Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon) and Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) to win them over.
As the Nike crew prepares for the big court in front of the Jordan family, the audience is introduced to the rest of the key players. Jason Bateman stars as Rob Strasser, vice president of marketing, and Chris Tucker stars as Howard White, who eventually became vice president of Nike’s Jordan brand. Bateman takes a cautious yet supportive approach with Strasser, while Tucker’s vibrant and electric energy breaks through and captivates the Jordans as white. The performances of each actor in ‘Air’ are phenomenal in their own right and they work as a team to create one of history’s most compelling business success stories on screen.
Affleck’s directing style is on point, with plenty of aerial and close-ups that allow the actors to really shine. It also includes old footage from famous commercials, music videos and sports games to establish the era the audience is revisiting or entering for the first time. Interspersing quotes from Nike’s 10 Principles also helps viewers understand the spirit of the company’s dedicated employees, many of whom are fans, former athletes or runners themselves. For example, “change is our business”, “we are always offended” and “if we do the right things, we will almost automatically make money” can be seen throughout the film. Throughout the film’s 1 hour and 52 minute running time, several references to the company’s history are made and may have come from Phil Knight’s inspirational memoir Shoe Dog.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson shoots the opening scenes with grainy fog, synonymous with the old VHS tapes used to record games in the ’80s. As the image clears throughout the film, Richardson is extremely good at offsetting the vintage set courtesy of production designer François Audouy. Shoe hounds and sneakerheads enjoy a variety of Easter eggs at the Nike office, including newspaper clippings from Nike’s original Blue Ribbon days and items from Knight’s international travels. A number of Nike pairs are also on display to chronicle the evolution of the company’s footwear. Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones does a wonderful job conveying the era and showcasing all the vintage Nike clothing worn by the crew. Behind the camera, this creative team excels at immersing the audience in the business world of the ’80s, while also playing on the love of modern nostalgia.
It was a wise decision not to have an actor play Michael Jordan. Affleck obviously put a lot of care into this project, respecting the legend and his loving family. He consulted with Jordan to get his blessing for the film, get his consent, and honor Jordan’s condition that the supreme Viola Davis play his mother. While many assume the “Air” is about the game or MJ himself, it’s actually about Nike’s underdogs who created a brand that was revolutionary for its time. Before Air Jordans, there was no such level of marketing strategy. As Strasser says, “a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.”
Another effective aspect of the film is how the story becomes about family. Davis brings immense warmth and strength to her role as Deloris Jordan, a woman who knew her son’s worth and fought for him to get his share of the pie. Her subtle yet stern performance evokes empathy and sophistication as Deloris navigates the business deals proposed to her and her adoring husband. His presence on screen has given audiences goosebumps on more than one occasion because of how perfectly he respects Mrs. Jordan and how he keeps himself aware that her son is a legend whose impact on the game will change his life forever. It’s all very beautiful.
All the actors in Affleck’s latest film give powerful and award-winning performances. “Air” is a slam dunk and ultimately one of the best sports movies ever made. Affleck successfully captures Nike’s heartwarming and hilarious marketing journey while paying respect to all involved. “Air” is a huge underdog story full of lovable characters. This is truly a film about legends made by legends.
“Air” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in theaters on Wednesday, April 5.
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