The humorous and often witty “Air” which is also known as “Air: Courting a Legend” is based on the true events behind the origin of the Nike, Inc. shoeline, Air Jordan. If you own one, you need to see this film. If you aspire to own one, you need to see this. If you want to understand the change in an economic system that exploited athletes, you’ll want to see this film. If you’re shoe obsessed, you’ll want to see this film.
As my closet and my husband can attest, I am shoe obsessed. The women in my family were and are obsessed with shoes, but none of us wear Air Jordans. Our motivations are more physical (children’s size feet) than aspirational. With all of us below five-feet, none of us were destined to be basketball stars since there isn’t an under five-foot league. In fair disclosure, I admit to have worn Adidas when I was playing tennis in high school, but now I wear Nike cleats (Nike Force Savage Shark Football Cleats) for running on grass with my dogs, color choices are made based on dogs and the surface.
The beginning montage sets up the era with its fashion faux pas (jogging fashions and the popularity of Adidas sweatsuits), political goings-on (Reagan years) and widely televised events (e.g. the marriage of Prince Charles of Wales and Diana Spencer in 1981). This is 1984. Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and would serve until 1989.
The person at the center of this drama, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), is a guy with a dad-bod and a gambling problem. He’s all for the kids and giving them breaks, but he also likes to gamble on basketball games and at the crap table. He’s better at one than the other and with Jordan, he feels he has a winner. He pushes his relationship with the CEO of Nike, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck, lets himself be the butt of the 1980s fashion humor).
Vaccaro knows basketball and he’s a champion of the athletes. In 1984, he founded the ABCD (Academic Betterment and Career Development) Basketball Camp which was sponsored by Nike and lasted for 4-5 days in July. (Sponsorship changed depending upon where Vaccaro was working. From 1984-1992, Nike was the sponsor.) Los Angelenos will be familiar with some of the players who passed through there: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBrown James.
Vaccaro is good friends with his former basketball player sidelined by a busted knee, co-worker Howard White (a hilarious Chris Tucker), and former collegiate basketball player George Raveling. By the late 1980s, Raveling was the coach at USC (1986-1994), but in 1963, he was security for Martin Luther King Jr on 28 August 1963, the day King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
What you won’t see much of in this film is a depiction of one specific Jordan, that’s Michael. He remains a looming, but mysterious presence throughout. The focus is instead on his mother, Deloris Jordan, played with the powerful mama bear no-nonsense stare of Viola Davis? She’s a woman who knows her son and knows what he could be and what he is worth.
Although Vacarro is clearly not interested in being athletic, he was instrumental in the lives of many athletes, including those he never met. Vacarro was also the man who recruited former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon for the ground-breaking O’Bannon v. NCAA (30 September 2015).
This is a win for Affleck as a director and while the cinematography of Robert Richardson really gives you the feel for the era, particularly at the beginning, I feel there are some questionable choices in lighting. I don’t know if we need so many close ups of Matt Damon, but I do love how the film (written by Alex Convery) also manages to shine a light on forgotten heroes, like the actual shoe designer, Peter Moore (21 February 1944-29 April 2022). Matthew Maher as Moore exudes a sweet nerdy charm. Moore is credited for creating the originally banned Air Jordan 1 silhouette and the Nike Dunk silhouette. The film encourages people to believe in their gut, like Sonny, and educates us in the business of shoes and how Air Jordan signified an economic change by which athletes finally benefited by the use of their name.
“Air” had it’s world premiere at the South by Southwest on 18 March 2023 and will be released 5 April 2023 by Amazon Studios.