The Beauty of ‘Air’: Ben Affleck’s Film Reflects Our Branding Moment

There are a lot of reasons why “Air,” the sensational new movie starring Matt Damon and directed by Ben Affleck, is being consumed by audiences with eager pleasure. It’s the rare drama for adults these days that people actually want to see in a movie theater (I don’t mean that to sound negative; the film could jump-start a trend). And that’s no random triumph. “Air,” based on the true story of Nike, Michael Jordan and the man who brought them together, is full of juicy inside talk about money and sports and celebrity and what agents and marketing executives actually do. In that way, it has the qualities that defined both “Jerry Maguire” and “Moneyball.”

The script is by Alex Convery, who has come out of nowhere (this is his first produced feature), and I would personally like to give a high-five to any screenwriter who creates this kind of dialogue — bright and sharp and nimble, with a cutting worldliness, the kind of conversation that’s been an engine of great films for 100 years. People talking! Spewing what’s on their minds, or deftly concealing it, as we hang on every word. “Air” has come along at just the right moment to remind us that terrific actors delivering savory lines of dialogue is the most special effect a movie needs.

The film is a catchy ’80s period piece, though not because it says, “Yo, check out the ’80s details!” Rather, it’s because Affleck, who is such a casually ace director, the kind who gets everything right but doesn’t let you see the sweat, creates a 1980s texture that’s just there, at once slick and frowsy and lived-in, enveloping the characters and defining how they think.

This offers some hindsight chuckles, as when Phil Knight, the co-founder and CEO of Nike (played by Affleck with prickly comic command), explains why Nike makes its revenue from running shoes, so why would it want to get into the sports-sneaker business? The movie’s needle drops, from “Money for Nothing” revving up the opening moments to “Rock the Casbah” and “Sister Christian,” produce note-perfect moments of propulsion and reflection. And Damon, wearing dowdy khakis and hideous stripes, with hair parted down the middle and a paunch it looks like he’s earned, takes you inside the cunning huckster gaze of Sonny Vaccaro, the sports marketing executive who gets an idea that blossoms into a vision: He’s going to sign Michael Jordan, the budding NBA superstar who was then 21 years old, to an exclusive contract with Nike.

Jordan doesn’t care much for Nike. He’s an Adidas man, and Nike doesn’t have a lot of money to offer star athletes for endorsements. So why on earth would he sign with them? What Sonny understands — it’s what Don Draper understood on “Mad Men” — is that you can’t have a great marketing concept if it isn’t supported by a dream. Sonny is a salesman, but the thing he’s asking is: What is Nike selling? Is it a shoe? The glow of Michael Jordan? Or is Nike selling something richer and deeper — an idea of who Michael Jordan is that will be defined and changed by how he’s being marketed? And that will, as a result, change how his fans feel about him? The deal that Sonny is trying to put together isn’t just for a celebrity endorsement. He’s trying to create part of the meaning of Michael Jordan.

“Jerry Maguire” was a romance. “Moneyball” was about a new algorithm for building a team, but the film pivoted on a classic journey toward trying to get into the World Series. “Air,” by contrast, is simply a drama about a shoe company doing all it can to make a deal. We know, famously, how the story ended; it’s not as if there’s some awesome suspense built into it. So why is “Air” such a rousing movie? In many ways it’s a throwback, returning us to the kind of sharp-edged mainstream entertainment that used to cruise along on the audience’s intelligence. Yet part of what’s so smart about “Air” is that this 1980s story is powered by an element that’s very, very contemporary. The entire movie is about branding, and about the reasons why branding, when done right, can seem like it’s everything.

Branding is now something we all do. Social media is, at this point, only incidentally a form of communication; it’s a vehicle that people use to position themselves, to craft and sell a certain idea of who they are. On Facebook and Twitter, we’re all our own avatars. On TikTok and Instagram, we’re more than that — we are actors and advertisers, projecting our self-created images out into the world. The language of advertising (memes, slogans) has become the language of ourselves. And because we all know all this, we now relate to almost everything we see as if it were a form of advertising. We’re constantly deconstructing the signals that come our way from individuals and corporations. The metaphysic of signifiers has become the air that we breathe, applying to everything from the coolification of kombucha to the never-ending candidacy of Donald Trump.

“Air” touches the moment that these forces began to gather steam in the culture. The film is set in 1984, when advertising had entered its high renaissance era of knowingness (the Ridley Scott “1984” Apple commercial, “Where’s the beef?”), so it’s not as if this was the Stone Age of corporate branding. Yet what the movie is about is how Sonny, even as he’s out to make the deal of the century, roots his quest in the human dimension of what he’s doing. He has figured out a way to invest branding with soul. The company will create a sneaker for Michael Jordan, and that shoe won’t just be something he wears; it will be part of who he is. They want the sneaker to have lots of red, to be a thing of beauty, but that breaks NBA rules. The league requires shoes that are mostly white and will fine any player who violates that rule. So Nike will pay the fines! Each and every game.

There’s something in that one financial detail that’s so resonant, so counterintuitive that it almost makes you want to cheer. It’s the company, and the movie, getting us to see that so many of “the rules” we live by are piddly, arbitrary things, that they’re made to be broken. Yet the reason “Air” is a drama as moving as it is captivating is that it’s ultimately a story that confronts a dimension of race in America. Viola Davis, in a performance of pinpoint slyness and an inner fervor that sneaks up on you, plays Jordan’s mother, Deloris, who is doing the bulk of the negotiating for him. Deloris is tough and holds all the cards. She’s fielding offers to Michael from every shoe company and is, of course, holding out for the best deal. The question is: What does that mean?

In 1984, it means more than money. It means some ineffable combination of money and mythology. Deloris’ belief in her son is absolute, and what that belief leads her to know is that he has the potential to occupy a place in sports, a place on the planet, that no player has occupied before him. He’ll be standing on the shoulders of Wilt Chamberlin, Dr. J., Kareem; he’ll reach even greater heights. And that’s a story of a form of genius, a newfound expression of triumph by a Black man in America. That is what the Air Jordan will mean. It will incarnate the beauty of that triumph and will allow all of Michael Jordan’s fans to taste a small piece of it. “Air” is a movie about branding. But what it shows you is that the way we brand ourselves can be a reality that defines us deeply and lifts us high.  

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button