Review: Nostalgic Nike Drama Air Chronicles the Story of Launching the Iconic Jordan Shoe

In the mid-1980s, Nike’s basketball shoe division was doing so poorly compared to Adidas and Converse that the company almost shut it down completely. They were struggling to find a satisfactory NBA player to whom they could hook their wagon—or perhaps the real issue was that no worthy player wanted to be associated with Nike. In an act of pure desperation, Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (played in the new film Air by Matt Damon) thought it would be a good idea to spend the entire basketball marketing budget on sponsoring one player rather than two or three.

His coworkers, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, who also directed the film), thought he was crazy, especially since the player he had in mind was an incoming rookie who had never played a single second on an NBA court. That player’s name was Michael Jordan, and Air is not only the story of the invention of Nike’s Air Jordan shoe line (which continues to earn billions every year), but it’s also the story of how Vaccaro and his team convinced the Jordan family and the shoe industry that the business had to be completely reworked in order to make athlete endorsements reflect the value of the player as well as the shoe.

Not to mix my sports metaphors, but Air came out of left field and how much I loved this movie took me totally by surprise. Air takes something as seemingly dull and pointless as creating a shoe and transforms it into one of the seismic events in the history of sports marketing, athlete's rights, and popular culture. It's as much an education as it is a high-stakes drama. And if that weren't enough, it's also funny as hell.

Working from a screenplay by Alex Convery, Air makes it clear that Nike never should have been able to make any of this work. But Vaccaro had enough experience with and love of basketball to see things others didn’t. By watching footage of Jordan at school in North Carolina, he realized that the coaches there saw something in the player that perhaps others did not. More than that, after consulting with coworkers such as Howard White (Chris Tucker) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), as well as legendary shoe designer Peter Moore (a standout Matthew Maher) and longtime friend and former player George Raveling (Marlon Wayans, who recites an unforgettable monologue that involves acquiring a copy of a historical speech), Vaccaro decides that going through the proper negotiating channels to get to Jordan (who had already expressed the desire to wear Adidas on the court in his first season) wasn’t going to work.

Instead, he goes through the real architects of the Michael Jordan legacy, his mother Doloris (Viola Davis), with the full support of her husband and Michael’s father, James (Davis’s real-life husband Julius Tennon). Risking incurring the wrath of Jordan’s actual agent David Falk (Chris Messina), who wouldn’t even take Nike’s offer to his client, Vaccaro goes directly to the parents in North Carolina and pitches them the differences between Nike and the bigger corporations working to get their son in their shoes. Rather than simply putting Michael in one of their existing shoes, Nike wanted to build a new shoe for and around Michael, making it Bulls red and black.

What Air gets so right, aside from seemingly dozens of fantastic needle drops on its soundtrack, is how much it pays off to listen and pick up cues from someone you are trying to impress, instead of simply trying to overwhelm them with promises, flash, and the potential to get lost in a big company. Vaccaro tells Mrs. Jordan exactly what to expect at these other shoe company pitch meetings, and he’s dead on because he knows his competition and how they operate. Vaccaro put his career—and the careers of others—on the line with this all-or-nothing pitch, and in the process, the company not only got Jordan (if this is a spoiler, why are you even reading this?), but the deal made him the first athlete to get a percentage of the sales forever and ever (the amount of money Jordan passively still makes today from this original deal is astronomical). His deal set the stage not just for the Air Jordan line of shoes and other products, but it gave players more power when it came time to negotiate similar deals. (The film’s end titles tell us that Vaccaro was also instrumental in the recent court case concerning players’ rights at the college level.)

With all of his films as director, Affleck has excelled at laying out layered and somewhat complicated stories and making them easily digestible, and Air is certainly no exception. And by the end, the movie ends up taking on the characteristics of a great sports movie itself, with teams effectively playing each other for this one sizable prize that is Michael Jordan. Affleck cleverly never shows us Jordan’s face, even in scenes in which he is present. More accurately, we never see the face of an actor playing Jordan (we see plenty of clips of the real Michael in game reels and news footage), because that would have been a huge distraction. He’s one of the most recognizable people on the planet, and putting anyone else in that role would have been foolish. 

Instead, we see Michael through the eyes of his mother, who gives an amazing speech to Vaccaro on knowing the worth of her son and his immense talent, not just in his rookie season but in the history of his time in the game. Almost to counter that, but still in an effort to get Michael to sign with Nike, Vaccaro gives a speech about how once Michael is at his peek, the world will attempt to tear him down, and that part of the reason it won’t be able to is because of the legacy of these shoes (he wasn’t wrong).

Air could have been an embarrassing docudrama, only skimming the surface of these events. Instead, we get a film about a team willing to put its fledgling reputation on the line for something they believed in passionately. And the film doesn’t pull any punches; it’s R rated for some very salty language, but I still think younger audiences will get a kick out of the story of how something so iconic was created. The film is sanctioned without being sanitized, and the result is a truly engaging, dramatic and entertaining cinematic experience.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.