Air: Courting a Legend
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck team up again, along with a stellar supporting cast, in this engrossing tale about how lowly Nike landed Michael Jordan and changed a sport and entire culture.
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Finally, a movie in which the marketing guys are the heroes!
I kid, I kid… though for once it’s nice to see where the people typically derided as the least talented and diligent folks in any organization get a fair shake.
“Air” — in some iterations accompanied by the regrettable subtitle “Courting a Legend,” and others not — is the true(ish) story of Sonny Vaccaro and Phil Knight, played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, respectively. In 1984 their Nike brand had only 17 percent of the basketball shoe market, but that year signed Michael Jordan as their spotlight endorsement figure.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the shoe line they launched, Air Jordan, changed not only the sneaker market but all of basketball and pop culture writ large. The shoes you’re wearing right now, even if they aren’t Nikes, were probably influenced by them. This is the story of how they made that happen.
Affleck also directed, from a screenplay by Alex Convery, a rookie who will undoubtedly get more minutes in Hollywood’s fiercely competitive rotation based on this work. It’s an engaging feel-good story about perseverence, ingenuity and the power of iconography.
You might think a two-hour movie that’s basically a bunch of middle-aged guys pitching shoes would be pretty dull stuff. Anything but.
Damon, plumped up for the role (supplemented by some padding, I’d guess), plays Sonny, a hoops lifer who realized his impact would not be on the court but spotting promising players and developing them into superstars. He wound up at Nike because they’re the only ones who’d hire him.
Sonny mostly travels around the country watching high school and college games, trying to find the next Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. He drives an aging Lincoln Town Car, eats microwave dinners and wears schlumpy clothes that scream “middle-aged single guy.” Even his office at Nike HQ in Beaverton, Ore., says “Tape Storage” rather than his name next to the door, since he spends so much time watching game film.
The top picks in the NBA draft are already on the verge of being signed by the competition, Addidas and Converse. Sonny has a paltry $250,000 to spend on the best three players he can sign. Maybe a Mel Turpin or Jay Humphries. There’s Charles Barkely, but as someone un-prophetically quips, “Nobody wants to watch Barkley on television.”
He pushes Knight, an eccentric hippie-turned-CEO who started the company selling sneakers out of the trunk of his car, to pony up more dough. The reality, Knight explains, is that the board of directors is on the verge of shutting down the basketball line entirely.
Sonny’s epihany is watching MJ’s championship-winning shot when he was just a freshman in the NCAA tourney. He’s convinced Jordan is going to be the next big thing, and pushes Knight to blow their entire wad on one guy — something that’s never been dared before.
Jason Bateman has a soulful turn as Rob Strasser, the sober-headed head of marketing who knows what a huge risk Sonny is taking, but still signs on to be his wingman. He gets some of the best lines and a couple of great monologue scenes.
Matthew Maher is Peter Moore, the eccentric shoe designer who’s challenged to create something that’s as much a work of art as a functional shoe. Chris Tucker charms as Howard White, a former college star who’s kept around to sweet-talk the Black families of stars — he even tells them so.
Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother, Deloris, and Julius Tennon has a much smaller role as his father, James. Deloris is clearly the boss of the family, a woman who knows how special her son is and is determined to help launch him into the NBA with an unprecedented deal. Davis is terrific playing a woman who plays her cards close to the vest.
Sonny shows up on the Jordans’ doorstep, knowing that Michael has all but committed with Addidas. This makes an enemy of David Falk (Chris Messina), Jordan’s cheerfully soulless agent, who promises Sonny he’s either going to make the deal or be destroyed.
Everything builds up to Nike’s last-ditch presentation to the Jordans. Sonny winds up scrapping the prepared spiel and makes a heart-to-heart plea. The capper: Nike will pay the $5,000 per game ban for Michael to wear the Air Jordans because the black-and-red scheme violates the league’s sneaker design rules.
Even though we know exactly how this story will end, it’s fascinating to watch these people scrap and claw and imagine in pursuit of what they want. It’s a great ensemble cast where everyone delivers, with Damon grounding everything with a hefty, non-showy portrayal of a guy who was unspectacular but refused to give up if he knew he was right.
Of course, Nike and Jordan made billions from this shoe deal, so it may seem strange to look up on them as underdogs. But every hugely successful enterprise started with a dream and a lot of sweat.
The story can get a little overwrought at times, like the cutaways to the “rules” Nike laid out for itself to achieve success. But even if a few shots clank off the rim, “Air” puts a lot of fantastic spin on this tale. There’s a lot of heart and soul in them soles.