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‘…a fast-moving and entertaining feature to promote Nike, but also a fairly vapid piece of brand shilling…’

Sigh. Let’s start with the positives. Amazon Studios finally stopped disrupting a cinema industry brought to its knees by Covid-19 and accepted a healthy theatrical window as part of their deal-making for Air; it’s an all-star origin story of the signing of basketball star Michael Jordan by the Nike brand of sports shoes in 1984. Based on a Black List script by Alex Convery, Air is directed by Ben Affleck and is a fast-moving and entertaining feature made to promote Nike, but also a fairly vapid piece of brand shilling of a narrow-mindedness we’ve rarely seen even from cash-grabbing Hollywood. In a world where the contractual process behind selling the international rights for Tetris might seem like a buzzy idea for a movie, it’s inevitable that films like Air will be made, but the prospect doesn’t raise much enthusiasm.

With Jordan himself largely relegated to an off-camera role, the protagonist here is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a talent scout who has identified Jordan as a potential star of tomorrow. His employer, Nike, are struggling for market traction, budgets are limited, and Sonny’s boss CEO Phil Knight (Affleck in what one hopes is a wig) can’t offer much flexibility to his task. But Sonny has an epiphany; wouldn’t it be brilliant to put all their eggs in one basket and blow their entire marketing budget on Jordan alone, hitch their wagon to his success and design an entire shoe exclusively around the young talent? Sonny heads out to lovely Wilmington North Carolina to crash the privacy of Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) and make her an offer she can’t refuse…

‘Some of us have pasts, and some of us are Nazis’ is one of the best lines here; Air works well when it’s slandering Adidas and Converse, and there’s quite a few gossipy interjections; the phrase ‘Just Do it’ is attributed to the last words on the electric chair execution of Gary Gilmore, although that’s not what he actually said. There’s also a shaggy dog story about Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech; Convery has clearly done some research and unearthed a few folksy homilies, but the lack of grit or any narrative surprises makes Air feel like a two hour promo for an already heavily-promoted company with an overall revenue circa 2021of $44 billion. Sweatshops, animal welfare issues, and thwarted labor agreements are various other factors which don’t seem to put prospective shoe-buyers off; like everything else in the current era, buyers can just pretend bad things are not happening and switch the channel, and Air will be a perfect balm for such nostalgia-seeking viewers.

For everyone else, Air is something of a waste of top talent, with Damon switching from downtrodden to messianic at the drop of a few well-chosen music cues, and support from Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker and Gustaf Skarsgård; they’re literally just making up Skarsgårds these days. Affleck clearly knows how to get the best out of his actors, yet despite such an array of skills, Air is the least interesting film that Affleck has made to date, and I’ve seen Live by Night. Everything about Nike is brilliant based on this evidence, they’re a wonderful bunch of altruistic lads who give enormous sums to charity, and have nothing in their hearts but the desire to help young athletes empower themselves. ‘They tell you the finish line is the goal, but actually running is the destination’ is as close as we get to any kind of critical self-analysis; the ‘theoretical values’ that Sonny espouses are never brought into question. Commercially-minded to a fault, Ben Affleck’s Air is as single-minded as an extended promo; one wonders how the poor people were doing back in 1984, but the obscene numerical wealth referred to in the closing credits suggests that big money was made at their expense.


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  1. Damn!

    Based on the actors, I had high hopes for this. Was thinking it would kind a Moneyball type film.

    Well, that makes tonight’s pick easy – off to watch JLo first instead!

    • Don’t get me wrong, buying top talent buys you a certain about of entertainment value, and this film is not boring. But it’s not quite a film either; Moneyball didn’t feel like a paid promotion, but this does; there’s no grit in the oyster, just a desire to sell more shoes.

    • You’d think anything with this cast would be amazing, but it’s the single-minded Nike-are-great sentiment that gets you in the end.

      • I was surprised when you kept naming people I actually recognized. But I guess when you’ve fallen from the heights of being Batman, well, what is left?

        • It’s a great cast, and this film is not dull. But there’s no POV other than Nike-vision, and the last of dissenting or even just balancing voices was a problem for me.

  2. Wow. I mean, this even goes beyond product placement. It’s literally a feature-length Nike ad? I’m a cynical bastard, but I don’t think I would have imagined this.

    • If there was a second of genuine critique of Nike, or praise for their competition, or any suggestion that Nike were anything other than a force for good, then I might have felt differently, but this is literally a vanity project to try and cement the place of greedy executives as generous legends.

      • There’s actually something disturbing about this. Not just for the corporate shilling, but as another illustration of the branding of celebrities. This was clearly the case with Space Jam 2, where the movie was basically just a way for Lebron James to extend his brand. I’d also point here to Venus and Serena Williams being executive producers on a biopic about their dad. Again, pure branding (the Williams clan as heroically triumphing against the odds).

        There’s been a lot of talk lately about sports stars demanding — and receiving! — insane amounts of control over the production of anything to do with their lives. This was the case with sports documentaries on Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, where their own production companies were involved with the production of docuseries about them. Which means they got to sign off on everything. I went to the Wikipedia page for this movie and found the following:

        Although not directly involved with the film, Jordan met with Affleck prior to the beginning of production and gave the project his blessing, asking for four changes to the script. Jordan asked for the inclusion of George Raveling, his assistant coach on the 1984 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, who was the first to recommend that he should sign with Nike. Jordan also asked that Howard White, vice president of Nike’s Jordan Brand and his personal friend, be included in the film. This directly led to Affleck casting Tucker, with whom he had long wanted to work and whom Jordan knew. He also asked for the removal of Tinker Hatfield as a character, as Hatfield, despite working at Nike at the time, was not involved with the creation of the Air Jordan. Finally, Jordan asked the roles of his parents, James R. Jordan Sr. and Deloris Jordan, to be extended, and the casting of Davis to play his mother, who was instrumental in making his mind about meeting and signing a deal with Nike, was his idea. Affleck and Damon did an uncredited script revision to accommodate Jordan’s asks.

        So if you’re making a movie, or even a documentary, about a sports star now you have to first receive their “blessing” (sheesh) and accommodate all of their “asks.” On top of that, they might even be in line for a cut in their own vanity projects if they’re credited as producers. This is a new low and everyone involved should be called out for it.

        • But isn’t this just what’s happened to music biopics. You either court the estate and whitewash your product ( Ray, Walk the Line) or you go your own way and make an unauthorized product that’s seen by a fraction of the audience (Velvet Goldmine). As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, I think we’ll see a lot of films made by celeb producers keen to build a monument to themselves. And the punchline of this film is Jordan demanding a cut for every shoe sold; this is seen as a game-changing innovation by Nike. From Space Jam 2 to King Richard, this kind of promo movie is nothing more than a paid advert, it may inspire brand loyalty from some, but not all of us will be so enthused. Ultimately, the credit that you give yourself counts for nothing, particularly when you are flogging expensive shoes.

          • Yeah, I hadn’t thought of the music ones. Probably the same thing. I’ve written about this a fair bit over the last few years. The thing is, anytime you have “access” to a celebrity you’re compromised. They’re using you to sell their brand, and you’re going to have to do it the way they want it. It’s something a lot of people do these days, especially in the presentation of their selves online, and there’s nothing new about building a “brand you,” but basically the really big celebs today are just beginning to realize the extent of their power in controlling their image/narrative when there’s no pushback. They’re just interested in building a cult of the self, and they have whole armies of publicity types who are managing it for them. I wish there were more people exposing this kind of thing and how it works, but as one publisher said a few years back most people don’t want to see behind the curtain.

            • Do you want to see what happens behind the curtain? The rues on UK broadcast media were changed years ago allowing companies and individuals to make films about themselves, and few want to portray the flip side of a brand they’ve spent years building. Most creatives seem happy to take the cash and accept the loss of creative control. There’s nothing in Air that makes Nike look bad, and despite big stars and so on, it’s hard to love.

              In a few years, Patrick Stewart will be old enough to star in a movie about your brand; the Alex Good story. Wouldn’t you want to see that?

              • I’m only interested in what’s behind the curtain. Movies like this should have notices like the ones on newspaper stories that are “sponsored content.”

                I think Pat could step in to play Young Alex: High School Here I Come! After that we’d be looking for someone older.

                • But how do you separate the financial food chain from corporate synergy? It’s all sponsored by someone, there’s always an agenda behind it. But making an ad restricts good film-makers; this lacks range.

                  • Corporate synergies are fine if you’re dealing with fiction and fantasy. If a big studio wants to work together with a toy manufacturer or videogame company and with McDonald’s and Burger King too for promotion, that’s fine. I’d even let Lebron James have Space Jam because something like that is no different than the My Little Pony or Care Bears movies.

                    But if you’re presenting yourself as being a documentary or a dramatization of a “true story” and you’re telling the story slant then you should have the kind of warning labels I mentioned for stories in newspapers and online that are sponsored by advertisers. They may be true, or more or less true, but that’s beside the point because they’re just ads.

                    • Being more overt about it would probably only add to their lustre. But seeing something so one sided immediately sends my wondering why such special pleading for sainthood is required.

                    • Lots of rich and famous people don’t just want to be rich and famous. They want to be loved. I suspect not being loved very much as children is probably what drives them.

                    • Building memorials to themselves doesn’t endear them to me.

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