I still love going to the movies, though I’m well aware I’m part of a generation that is rapidly becoming a minority in that opinion. There’s a threefold assault on the future of actually putting butts in the theatres: the cost of the experience, the availability of home theatre systems that are often nearly as good as the audio-video available in a multiplex, and the fact that the experience of having first-run content available via PVOD during the earlier days of the pandemic got the target generation used to a world where, much like top-quality food, was available to them without leaving their comfy couch.
My roommate is conflicted and quixotic about all of this, a passionate movie-goer who actually holds a loyalty card and who is intent on bringing his teenage soon as often as possible. More often that not, both by desire and default, they will see the latest superhero iteration, what major studios now believe are the only titles that most people are interested in shelling out the kind of money and physically battling parking, weather and the cost and task of finding competent baby-sitters needed for the theatrical experience. Judging by box office figures, they seem to be in line with the behaviors of most Americans of late.
But I’m one who believes that, sometimes, a well-crafted, well-written movie, devoid of special effects but loaded with quality performances and executions, is reason enough to, on occasion, justify the layout of nearly $20 for 800-1200 calories worth of a lunch (and that’s even for the healthiest possible options) that is now self-served on a touchscreen for drone-like “guest services” slaves confusingly bring to you just before the movie starts. And, being the research lover that I am, I especially like seeing other people experience a story that, to them, is unknown, even if to me it’s all too familiar.
So I somehow found the money to go see AIR in a theatre on its opening weekend, a storyline that I saw unfold in real time during the ’80s. AIR tells the behind-the-scenes story of how Nike, which at the time was a poor third in the battle for share of basketball shoe sales despite having an established following with running shoes, was able to sign Michael Jordan away from number two Adidas. Thanks to the ubiquity of YouTube highlights and the success of one of the few breakout original hits of the pandemic, THE LAST DANCE, even teenagers like my roommate’s son know the legend of Jordan, now 20 years removed from his last NBA game and a quarter-century removed from the last of his six rings. And many of them still covet Air Jordans and are willing to spend hundreds of their (or, more likely, their parents’) money to wear them. It is a trans-generational story of worship and passion that has some truly unique characters in its origins, and one that some top-notch talent felt deserved to be told.
Ben Affleck directs himself, playing the mercurial Nike founder Phil Knight, and his longtime BFF Matt Damon, playing his friend and internal basketball savant Sonny Vaccaro, and show the kind of chemistry and nuance that the world first saw in GOOD WILL HUNTING. Viola Davis, perhaps one of this generation’s most talented and chameleonic actresses, takes on the role as moral compass and matriach of the Jordan household, both loving and cutthroat in the same breath. And the film has numerous other outstanding performances as well. ABC News’ Peter Travers’ review pretty much mirrors many others, including mine:
Big news: Ben Affleck directs the first all-star Oscar contender of 2023. And that’s something for a financially angled tale about creating a sneaker. Not just any sneaker, it’s the Air Jordan, named after then-hoops rookie Michael Jordan, that sparked a culture revolution in 1984.
“Air” stars Affleck as Nike CEO Phil Knight, a profit-obsessed Buddhist (even he laughs at the contradiction) faced with pressure from the publicly traded Nike company when Adidas and Converse leave it in the dust.
Enter a livewire Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, a sweaty schlub in charge of Nike’s flailing basketball division. Sonny wants to blow his entire marketing budget on signing Jordan. In hindsight, it’s a eureka moment. Back then, Sonny was laughed at by Nike honchos Howard White (Chris Tucker), Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans).
And it’s a kick watching Affleck and Damon, Oscar-winning besties for writing “Good Will Hunting,” go at each other on screen. Though they’ve appeared together in nine movies, “Air” marks the first time that Affleck has directed his boyhood chum from Massachusetts. And it speaks volumes about their relationship that Damon gives one of his best ever performances.
In fact, all the actors are dynamite in roles large and small, a sign of a gifted director. Affleck won a best picture Oscar for 2012’s “Argo,” though the Academy snubbed him for directing. That can’t happen again. As Phil and Sonny fight it out over Jordan, they build a team in which every player is essential, just like in basketball, just like in movies.
Its not just the story itself that is compelling, given the well-known personalities these talented actors are portraying. It’s HOW the story is told. Affleck shows a remarkable directorial talent once again, much like what he displayed in his Oscar-winning work on ARGO. Damon and Bateman play two dedicated but emotionally beaten middle-aged divorcees who, despite their high-level corporate jobs, are mired in the morass of living in suburban Portland, Oregon, root for a local team that somehow drafted the injury-riddled (and, ultimately, NBA bust) Sam Bowie rather than Jordan, and who are working in a classic 80s office environment of cluttered offices, old-school PC terminals and office park locations where, more often that not, a 7-11 is the best choice for food. There are some fantastic supporting performances by Chris Messina as Jordan’s agent David Falk, who sets a standard for gall that far eclipses the likes of Jerry Maguire and Ari Gold, and Matthew Maher as the brilliant geek-like designer Peter Moore, who, like Vaccaro and Bateman’s marketing guru Rob Strasser, is also middle-aged and struggling to the point where he seeks pleasure in riding a skateboard.
Affleck uses his storytelling talent to make some intriguing choices. We do not see the actor who plays Jordan other than briefly from the rear, effectively making him as much of a mystery in this story as he was to the majority of the basketball world when he debuted with a medicore Bulls team after he helped the USA team win gold in Los Angeles. We see the unveiling of the original black and red Air Jordan, revolutionary in its use of color and backed by a commitment that defied the NBA’s rule on at least 51% of a shoe being white with Nike’s assurance they would pay over $400,000 in fines to make sure the full impact of this is felt. We see Damon essentially go off script to make an impassioned plea to the Jordan family that channels his own deep passion, drawing from likes of his advice from Raveling, who carried around a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King as his inspiration. And we see Davis’ Deloris Jordan literally ask for an unprecedented deal that would guarantee Michael a percentage of every shoe ever sold anywhere in the world–one that still generates more than $400M a year in passive income for Jordan as he enters his sixties.
Now I knew these stories. My roommate’s son did not. To see his rapt attention as this story unfolded, even jet-lagged and fresh from the basketball court himself, was worth the price of admission itself. And seeing his reaction to the Air Jordan almost makes up for the joy I felt when I purchased the one such pair of them that I did–albeit as a gift for someone very special who wanted a pair for their birthday. I’m still waiting for a thank you from that person. That’s another story.
But I know that if and when I can afford to, I’d like to buy this guy a pair. Because the shoe is that special. And so is this movie.
As I wrote earlier this week, it’s somewhat ironic that it is Amazon that is releasing this Oscar contender theatrically. That’s because all of this talent, not to mention its outstanding soundtrack that draws from almost every K-Tel mixtape ever sold in that era, cost a LOT of money–per the Hollywood Reporter, about $160M. Streaming revenue alone wasn’t going to cover this nut. To be sure, the theatrical window is short, and a LOT more people will see this on Prime Video eventually. And if I don’t miss my guess, in the same way that I did when I bought that pair for my special ungrateful friend, a bunch of basketball shoes will probably be ordered impulsively by people who watch that way, and both Nike and Amazon will benefit from it. Those Pacific Northwest conglomerates have to have each others’ backs, right?
But in doing that, it conflates the experience of seeing a top-notch film on a big screen. despite the high-calorie meal that one is almost obligated to purchase in order to savor it. A good long walk, or a spirited basketball game, can work off a lot of those calories. And that’s what I’m going to do right now. I urge you to put on your shoes and walk to your nearest theatre to see AIR, if for no other reason that in doing so you’ll leave room for a dessert.
Until next time…