Ben Affleck turns Nike’s quest to sign Michael Jordan into this generation’s ‘Jerry Maguire’

Americans spend tens of billions of dollars on sneakers every year. Of course, everyone needs shoes, but it doesn’t matter if your choice is Nike’s swoosh, Adidas’ three stripes or Converse’s star. In most cases, consumers don’t just buy shoes; they invest in the fantasy of walking in someone else’s shoes – a sports star or personal idol – believing that changing your kick has a direct impact on your potential for greatness.

As the Nike marketing gurus said in Ben Affleck’s “Air,” “A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.” If you’ve lived on earth for the past 40 years, you already know what happened when a rookie named Michael Jordan let Nike put his name and likeness on his shoes. But ‘Air’ isn’t about convincing the greatest basketball player in the history of the game to sign with Nike, though a desperate Matt Damon of ‘Jerry Maguire’ – as the pot-bellied, sweaty Sonny Vaccaro – might inspire you to to think so is just the (admittedly very entertaining) anatomy of a landmark trade deal.

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Instead, “Air” should be seen as the ultimate example of the American dream, a kind of Cinderella story about how the third-place sneaker brand wished for a star and how that man – and his mother – were smart enough to know their value. “Air” reveals how an exceptional black athlete used his talent and the power of being chased by a group of white men in suits to change the game. Not just basketball, but the whole realm of celebrity endorsements. It’s remarkable and fitting that Affleck focused these negotiations not on Michael Jordan, but on the woman he trusted the most, his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis).

It’s 1984, as an opening pop culture montage reminds/educates audiences of the early days of the ultra-sophisticated advertising world we live in: Apple hired Ridley Scott to direct a Super Bowl commercial; Wendy shot “Where’s the Beef?” in a national slogan, and sports stars were everywhere, from Wheaties boxes to TV commercials. Nike had marketed themselves as a running shoe company and no serious basketball players wanted to sign with them. Sales were down, and company founder Phil Knight was ready to unplug the entire division.

In a sly move, Affleck introduces himself as Knight, playing the OG “shoe dog” as a comedic figure with an ill-fitting wig and an aloof sense of timing. Most corporate CEOs step on other people’s sentences, jump in before their underlings are done talking, but not this one. He waits a moment before answering, as if his attention could be divided between the current conversation and a dozen other thoughts. On the wall of Knight’s office hangs a giant sign listing the 10 rules by which Nike operates. Rule #2 reads, “Break the rules.” But in 1984, Nike was a publicly traded company and boards expect the rules to be followed.

Enter Vaccaro, Nike’s basketball guru, who “Air” introduces as a gambler: He stops in Vegas after a scouting trip and loses it all at craps. But it’s more than a hunch that tells him that Nike should be investing its entire quarter-million dollar basketball marketing budget on a single player, rather than splitting it among several draft picks from lower rank. It doesn’t matter that Jordan is an Adidas guy; forget that the German company (to which “Air” takes some sharp digs) can spend everything it offers.

Jordan’s genius on the pitch goes virtually without saying, and yet screenwriter Alex Convery cleverly decodes the 21-year-old’s potential, explained after Vaccaro studied tape from Jordan’s freshman year on the University team from North Carolina. This and other key moments play like classic Aaron Sorkin scenes, mixing the baseball ideas of “Moneyball” with “The Social Network” style power plays. His characters aren’t as compelling as Sorkin’s, but they express themselves beautifully. Between the nostalgic radio hits of the 80s, they walk and talk strategy (around the great sets of the decorator François Audouy) or cut themselves in private (as old friends Damon and Affleck do on several occasions).

In the film’s most galvanizing monologue, Vaccaro finally sets the tone for Jordan (whose face appears only in archival footage) and his parents (Davis and Julius Tennon). Who knows what Vaccaro really said in this room, but this speech – interspersed with the triumphs and pitfalls of Jordan’s career – encapsulates everything Michael Jordan means to us, his fans and the legions of Americans he has inspired. To get to this moment, Vaccaro must first convince Knight to approve his plan; he has to deal with Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, hilariously hostile); and he must hunt and face Deloris in person.

Casting Davis was the smartest thing Affleck could have done, because the EGOT winner has to play what Jordan is to the sport: her strength inspires and she can move us to tears while making it look like it is easy. We all know what happened with the Air Jordan deal – the shoe started the collectible sneaker culture that surrounds us today – and yet Davis forces Damon to work for the family’s approval.

Meanwhile, as Vaccaro, Damon channels the same nervous energy that defined his underrated, yet career-best performance, in “The Informant!” by Steven Soderbergh: Sometimes the whole scheme seems to crumble around him, and in that moment Damon brings the same competitive spirit we associate with sports movies into the boardroom. It’s a shame that the character doesn’t have a personal life to speak of. At least Nike marketing executive Rob Strasser (played here by Jason Bateman) explains the stakes of a touching birthday scene.

Memorable parts of Chris Tucker as Howard White, who swapped his basketball uniform for a company suit, and Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, the coach of the 1984 Olympics, ” Air” often seems to focus on the whiter guys in the room. But Affleck is barely blind to the racial dynamics underlying this whole saga, revealing how Deloris ensured that corporate America couldn’t exploit his son.

Then and now, Nike’s shoes weren’t necessarily sleeker or more advanced than those of their competitors – although the original Air Jordans were a thing of beauty. The company’s sneakers owed almost all of their mystique to the athletes who wore them. In 1984, Michael Jordan was still a rookie rather than a myth, and yet the movie works because everyone knows what he’s become. The last of Knight’s 10 Rules reads: “If we do the right things, we will make money almost automatically.” The deal with Jordan saved the company. The rest is his story.

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