On paper, Air—Ben Affleck’s new film about Nike’s 1984 pursuit of an up-and-coming basketball star named Michael Jordan—is a curious concept for a movie. It’s something like a biopic of a marketing coup, a film that’s centrally about one of the most famous human beings on the face of the earth who only barely appears onscreen as a character. (The young Jordan is played by Damian Young but is blocked and shot so that we never actually see his face.) It’s the sort of concept that could lend itself to disaster if handled poorly, so it’s a credit to everyone involved that Air is thoroughly entertaining, even if it never really maximizes its alluring potential. By the end it feels like Affleck’s movie has settled for a pull-up jumper rather than attacking the rim—a reasonable decision, but probably not one Michael Jordan would make.
The film stars Matt Damon as legendary hoops Svengali Sonny Vaccaro and Affleck himself as Nike honcho Phil Knight, while a sterling supporting cast includes Jason Bateman as Nike marketing czar Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker as exec Howard White, Chris Messina as super-agent David Falk, and a scene-stealing Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, the young Michael’s watchful mother. At its best, Air is the sort of tight and well-crafted entertainment about adult human beings that you wish Hollywood made more of. It’s a movie that unfolds over a relatively brief period of time and largely within the confines of a Beaverton, Oregon, office complex, and yet first-time screenwriter Alex Convery’s lively script always seems to know exactly where it’s going.
The audience, of course, knows where it’s going, too. The peculiarity of Air’s premise should be its most interesting aspect, so it’s mildly disappointing that it so dutifully sands it down into the familiar contours of inspirational sports-movie triumphalism. Affleck is a talented filmmaker, a fluid storyteller with a natural flair for popcorn-scented pleasures who also tends to gravitate toward overly ingratiating middlebrow fare. The Town was a nifty little heist thriller until a final act that veered into Good Will Hunting levels of sentimentality, while his Academy Award–winning Argo’s breezy oversimplicity was widely criticized at the time, including quite memorably in this magazine.
Air is a perfectly good movie with flickers of a great one that’s struggling to escape from the confines of convention. Most of these flickers come from Damon and Davis, whose onscreen interactions are when the movie is at its most magnetic. I found myself particularly fascinated by Damon’s performance, a subtle and surprisingly risky one. Often when actors play historical figures they take it as an invitation to impersonation, but Damon’s Vaccaro looks and sounds almost nothing like his real-life counterpart. (Damon doesn’t even attempt Vaccaro’s distinctive western Pennsylvania accent.) What he manages to capture instead is Vaccaro’s indefatigable charisma: If you’ve ever seen an interview with Vaccaro (he’s not exactly a shrinking violet), he comes off as a guy who could sell water to a fish, and it’s this aspect of Vaccaro that Damon rightly understands as most important to the performance.
Vaccaro might not be a household name, but among basketball diehards, especially those who follow the sport at its putatively “amateur” levels, he is an absolutely totemic figure. He first rose to prominence in the mid-1960s, when he began organizing the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a groundbreaking high school all-star game that quickly became one of the most significant events in the sport, a feeding ground for recruiters, coaches, and all varieties of bagmen. After being hired by Nike in the late 1970s, Vaccaro pioneered the practice of paying college coaches to outfit their players in Nike apparel, and by the mid-1980s he had started the prestigious ABCD Camp for the country’s top high school players. After Knight fired him from Nike in the early 1990s, he went to Adidas, then Reebok, before finally getting out of the shoe business and dedicating himself to the cause of securing fair compensation for college athletes. (Vaccaro was a driving force behind the landmark O’Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit.)
Vaccaro’s stroke of genius, one that was already well on its way to a fait accompli by the events in Air, was realizing that by getting very young hoops stars into the ecosystem of the sneaker business and building brand loyalty by giving away shoes to college kids and then high school kids via sponsored tournaments and AAU teams, the companies that employed him would be uniquely positioned to reap the benefits once a rarefied few of these players ascended to professional stardom. This innovation made him one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport, as well as one of the most controversial. To his proponents, Vaccaro was a visionary, a fatherly mentor, a kingmaker who helped talented young men become unimaginably rich. To his detractors, he was an avaricious predator, a shark swimming in waters that he himself had polluted. When I was a kid, the pejorative “sneaker pimp” was used to describe the unsavory characters who stalked the shadows of amateur basketball. The term might as well have been coined with Vaccaro in mind.
To call Vaccaro a morally complex figure is an understatement along the lines of calling Michael Jordan a pretty good 2-guard. And morally complex figures are the stuff of great movies! Unfortunately, Air is so in thrall to the vicissitudes of a standard sports flick that it needs to frame Vaccaro as a sort of schlubby, amiable underdog, so that the audience can more viscerally thrill to his triumph at the movie’s preordained climax. This is worse than wrong—it’s boring. Air knows that Sonny Vaccaro is its most interesting character, it just doesn’t seem to know what’s actually interesting about him.
Air’s most tantalizing opportunity is to tell a story that a lot of people don’t know that’s had profound implications for modern life. That story is a hinge point in the intertwined histories of sports and capitalism that would have massive ramifications for anyone who’s ever played, watched, or profited off sports. Not all of those ramifications have been good—check out George Dohrmann’s terrific 2010 book Play Their Hearts Out for a harrowing look at the ways sneaker money has impacted the sport at the youth levels. Particularly striking is Air’s near-total avoidance of the topic of race, which obviously haunts this entire history and then some. The closest it comes are the potent scenes between Damon and Davis, one more reason that the film could have used more of them.
Affleck seems like a sharp guy and is a confirmed sports nut—it’s exceedingly unlikely that he doesn’t know all of this. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that Air ultimately chooses to be a movie about a bunch of people getting rich (or in Knight’s case, richer) and living happily ever after. The ubiquitous tagline to Air is “A Story of Greatness,” which looks cool on a poster, but come on, anyone who’s ever dropped three figures on a pair of Jordans knows there are juicier stories to tell.