How tenacity, adaptation, and intelligent shoe design led to Nike’s greatest creation
In recent years the secondary market for new and used sneakers as collectibles has boomed into a massive industry, sending values for vintage classic shoe models skyrocketing. And in the world of athletic footwear there’s no name more hallowed than Jordan — Air Jordan, that is. Even two decades after Michael Jordan’s retirement from the NBA, the shoe that Nike built — or was it the shoe that built Nike? — is still in production with no sign of ever slowing down.
In this understanding of the Air Jordan phenomenon, the idea of FAMOUS SHOE: DA MOVIE might seem a crass move, a tacky product manufactured in recognition of a collectible market that has too much money, in order to relieve them of some of it. Or worse, an elaborate brand advertisement — a thought that is in no way assuaged by having Amazon as its distributor.
Happily, it’s neither of those. Air, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes story of inking of the Michael Jordan endorsement deal which led to the biggest sneaker of all time, is pretty simply a great story, well told, about the clash between navigating sterile corporate politics, against taking big, passionate risks.
Taking place in the early 80s while Nike was still just a fledgling and desperately struggling company, unable to break into the basketball market dominated by Converse and Adidas, Air centers on Sonny Vaccaro, a middle-aged Nike employee and basketball expert who pleads with his company (including teammates Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker, and Ben Affleck as CEO Phil Knight), to forego their cash-conservative (and unexciting) plans and instead put all their chips — the entire budget, and probably the company’s fate — on trying to land a deal with #3 draft pick Michael Jordan, a player who is hopelessly unattainable to them for several reasons that everyone is happy to point out.
This is a great cast putting in top performances — everyone’s wonderful here. Viola Davis shines as Michael Jordan’s mother Deloris, who’s sharp, looking out for her son, and wary of the wolves at the door. Matthew Maher is especially delightful as Nike’s shoe designer, who’s tasked with prototyping the revolutionary new model. And I was very pleased to see such a supporting role for Chris Tucker, who hasn’t acted in many films in recent years but kills it here.
While Michael Jordan (portrayed by Damian Young) is on the fringes of the narrative — and spiritually at its heart, the film makes a conscious choice to not show his face, which might seem odd but makes great sense for a number of reasons. Besides eliminating the possibility of being a distraction for the audience to see how closely the actor looks like Michael (literally one of the most famous and recognizable people alive), he’s simply not really an active character within the plot — that’s where his mom comes in instead. In fact, obscuring Jordan’s face isn’t all that different than concealing the contents of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase in Pulp Fiction: he’s kind of the MacGuffin around which the story revolves.
Director Ben Affleck continues to show a deft hand at crafting engaging stories. My screener has a brief video introduction in which Affleck encouraged the audience to, “Have fun!”.