The True Story of How Michael Jordan Became A Shoe

‘Air,’ Ben Affleck’s breezy, brotastic celebration of Nike’s greatness

Witness the origin story of a blockbuster sneaker, as told through blustery, heartfelt, skeptical, passionate, smack-talking but fundamentally genial contract negotiations. That’s the gist of lighter-than-air Air, a featherweight feelgood dramedy about white broheims and their capitalistic hustle on the decidedly minority-driven basketball court. Air Jordans are the film’s deserving object of desire, the ultimate symbol of the unparalleled, unstoppable, unmatched NBA-career excellence of sports GOAT Michael Jordan.

AIR ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Alex Convery
Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis
Running time: 112 min

That product is a monumentally successful business story—more than $5 billion in sales last year alone—with an immeasurable cultural imprint. But this film focuses on the improbable 1984 Big Bang that created the Air Jordan, not its repercussions throughout the world in the decades that followed. Which means that, for the bulk of its running time, Air mostly sticks us in conference rooms and offices of people thinking up the deal and then hammering out a legal agreement.

If there’s a takeaway, it’s that Jordan’s mom Deloris (Viola Davis) had to demand that her son get a cut of the revenue: a piece of the action so obviously deserved that in hindsight its initial absence seems galling. Deloris knew the value of her son, even before the NBA, and understood how his steely commitment to greatness would uplift Nike’s fortunes beyond its wildest imagination. That’s the truly compelling part of Air—not how a bunch of sweaty-palmed C-suite suits from an underdog shoe company landed the endorsement deal of the century.

And yet, here we are, watching Nike talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and director of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) hash out a Hail-Mary pass despite rebuffs from Jordan’s hilariously bloviating superagent David Falk (Chris Messina). Bankrolling the all-in gamble is Nike’s CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, who also directed), a pioneering businessman that Air caricatures as a Buddhist-inflected blowhard more obsessed with the 17 coats of purple paint on his grape-colored Porsche than he is with this company’s moribund basketball initiative.

The grand irony is how Nike—fundamentally focused on jogging shoes—was a distant third in basketball footwear’s market share, behind perennial #1 champ Converse, nearly synonymous with the court, and #2 Adidas, shoes which rappers adored just as much as their ubiquitous matching track suits. Nike was looking for a makeover, but some doubted their new slogan: “Just Do It,” a riff on the final words of convicted killer Gary Gilmore before he was executed. “More like ‘Just Get this Shit Over With,’” sneers sports marketing VP Howard White (Chris Tucker).

These little sparkling moments give Air its buoyancy, along with the easygoing charisma of its persistently endearing cast. It’s a charm offensive more than it is a movie, one that feels strangely innocuous and ephemeral despite its milestone machinations that transformed the relationship between NBA players and sports merchandising. Inspirational? No doubt. But the rousing uplift it generates is purely vicarious. “A shoe is only just a shoe until someone steps into it,” says Strasser in one of the film’s many pithy aphorisms. They’re all spectators to the majesty of Jordan, the sun around which they all revolve and who only makes a peripheral appearance as a disconnected voice and obscured figure with his back always turned to the camera.


“Mrs. Jordan, I, the Nike basketball talent scout, am the true hero of Michael’s Story.”–Matt Dam and Viola Davis in ‘Air,’ directed by Ben Affleck.

Affleck knows how to maintain his story’s steady gait, with a well-structured script and capable pros delivering its consistent chuckle lines. If there’s one fault to his efficient filmmaking, it’s an overreliance on early ‘80s nostalgia—cue quick cuts of Trivial Pursuit cards and handheld Coleco games—plus an endless array of super-short Top-40 needle drops. Every scene transition seems to have a 10-second blast from the past. Expect “Money for Nothing,” followed by “My Adidas” and the aspirational “All I Need is a Miracle” boosting the plot points. You could say they were even “Tempted” to overspend on their music budget. In the words of REO Speedwagon: “Can’t Fight this Feeling!”

The one truly stirring moment is a shamanistic pitch-meeting prophecy as Vaccaro fortune-tells Jordon’s future with keen insight. It’s an ode to the thrill and awe that sports fans feel in the presence of greatness, and it’s of course why the Air Jordan exploded into the scene. Air is an innocuous celebration of that vicariousness, and how big money can buy the fantasy of proximity to perfection. Fandom for fandom: what a strangely hollow experience.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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