It’s the year 1984. Garfield the cat is at the height of his career, a revolutionary dystopian Apple computer commercial is playing during Super Bowl XVIII, and Princess Diana is giving birth to baby Prince Harry. All of this and more after the break. Or, in the case of “AIR,” played in sequence at the start of the movie.
I was instantly taken with the directorial choice to establish the era with culturally significant moments straight from video cassettes, horrid camera quality and all. At age 22, I am familiar with the 1980s as a source of deep nostalgia and cringe-worthiness for my parents. I think “AIR” could have amped up the characters’ hair a little bit — if my mom’s photo albums accurately represent the period.
Speaking of culturally significant moments, “AIR” tells the story of Sonny Vaccaro from Nike taking a gamble on Michael Jordan in Michael’s early years and gambling Nike’s whole budget on Air Jordans. Fair warning, Michael Jordan’s character is barely seen in the film. When asked about the choice, actor and director of the film Ben Affleck told The Hollywood Reporter, “It was a deliberate choice. I thought he was too majestic to have anyone impersonate him and — as I told him — ‘You’re too old to play the part.’” Affleck went on to say, “I thought if the audience brought everything they thought and remembered about him and what he meant to them to the movie and projected it onto the movie, it worked better.”
And worked it did. I am a person who does not recreationally watch basketball. Hell, I hadn’t even seen “Space Jam” until a week ago (and sufferin’ succotash, did I love it). But I know how revolutionary Michael Jordan was and is to this very day. This is a testament to the points Sonny (Matt Damon) makes in his motivational speech as they pitch the shoe to the Jordan family. He repeats perhaps the most iconic quote of the film: “A shoe is always just a shoe until someone steps into it.” When that someone is the greatest athlete of all time, those shoes have meaning. And now those shoes and that athlete’s story have a film that raked in $20.2 million at the box office in the opening week.
So is “AIR” worth the watch? I would argue yes. Aside from some head-scratcher cracks at Sonny being fat (what’s the punchline here? He’s a 52-year-old man of seemingly average weight, and even if he wasn’t, it’s 2023. We can come up with less lazy and problematic comedy material), as well as an instant failure on the Bechdel test (I raise my glass to Viola Davis for basically representing all of womankind in this film), the movie was enjoyable. I even got to see the Nike Cortezes I was sporting on my very own feet sitting propped up on the desk behind himbo CEO Phil (Ben Affleck). I appreciated the narrative significantly centering Michael’s mom, particularly given my knee-jerk reaction at previously seeing the trailer which featured two white guys as the stars of a movie about Michael Jordan. The end of the film showed pictures of the people the film was based on, with those classic lines describing their fates and destinies in the years since the story. I was impressed to see that most of the characters were seemingly constructed around real workers at Nike in the 1980s. It’s fun to watch a story play out knowing the gambles the characters took paid off tenfold. And all because of one inspirational prodigy.
Michael Jordan is the kind of human being that makes us all pause and look up in amazement. It’s why we watch the Olympics. It’s why there are extravagant award ceremonies for moving performances on stage and on screen. It’s why artists and athletes and passionate people everywhere still strive to be great. And, as “AIR” narrativized, it’s why we will buy a pair of shoes to feel close to that kind of greatness.
“AIR” is currently playing in theaters.
By Risa Bolash