Air, by Albert W. Vogt III

There was no way that I was going to miss Air this weekend.  Why do I begin with what might be an obvious statement to those who best know this kid from Chicago?  Because The Super Mario Bros. Movie premiered at the same time.  To that end, my sister asked if I would go with her and my nieces to see the animated rendering of the video game we grew up playing.  I can hardly say no to my nieces.  Yet, that would be two trips to the cinema in the space of a couple of days.  This might not seem like a big deal, but it was Easter weekend.  It is a prayerful time, to say the least.  It should also be a time with family, and that was my justification for squeezing in two movies amongst everything else I was doing.  To that point, I saw Air with my dad.  One of my earliest memories is of being in the family car, dad driving us home from my grandparents’ house for some holiday, and hearing Michael Jordan playing for our hometown Chicago Bulls on the radio.  It is hard to encapsulate what he meant to us growing up in and around the Windy City.  While the movie is not about him specifically, just know my eagerness to see something solely about the shoe he made famous should explain why I made the decision to squeeze in another trip to the theater.

The one thing that Air makes clear early on is that it is 1984, and I am not mad about it.  Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) works for Nike trying to recruit players to its nascent basketball division.  It may seem strange to say now, but there was a time when the company was not synonymous with the greatest basketball player of all time, but known more for its running attire.  Sonny has been brought on to change this perception of the company.  To do so, he spends a lot of time going to high school games to recruit players before they get to college.  Each trip, though, involves a stop in Las Vegas before coming home.  Home is where Nike headquarters are in Beaverton, Oregon.  At the office, some of his colleagues are growing restless with his lack of production, including the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Phil Knight (Ben Affleck).  Sonny is not making it easier.  While going over the list of the top college draft picks in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Nike’s vice president (VP) of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) essentially tells him that they cannot afford the top guys.  None of the players they plan on targeting, in Sonny’s view, will make a difference to Nike’s bottom line.  Because it is his job to identify talent, he spends a lot of time looking at film.  It is Michael Jordan’s game winning shot in the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1982 that draws his attention.  In it, Sonny sees something special, something that separates Jordan from everyone else.  Because of this, despite Jordan’s intentions of signing with anyone but Nike, Sonny becomes fixated on the idea of bringing the future star to Nike.  Immediately, Phil and Rob point out one major problem: they are not willing to spend that kind of money on one person.  For further context and emphasis, to get Jordan, Sonny proposes that they devote their entire basketball budget to Jordan.  This is unheard of, and it takes Sonny reminding Phil of the risks he had to take to start a successful brand for him to agree to even make an attempt at wooing Jordan.  With this approval, another obstacle comes about, namely David Falk (Chris Messina), Jordan’s agent.  David tells Sonny that Jordan going to either Adidas or Converse is all but a done deal, and that Nike cannot even get a meeting.  In response, Sonny takes another gamble, one that could cost him his job: he goes directly to Jordan’s parents, Deloris (Viola Davis) and James Jordan (Julius Tennon).  The Jordans are surprised by Sonny’s visit, which is a precarious one because agents like David exist for a reason.  Nonetheless, they are impressed with Sonny’s straightforwardness, and Deloris agrees to talk to her son about the possibility of taking up with Nike.  Importantly, Sonny tells Deloris almost everything that is going to occur with their meetings with Adidas and Converse down to the color of their ties.  Because of this, the Jordans agree to a meeting with Nike.  Once Sonny recovers from the initial shock of getting this far, it is now time to design the pitch.  This involves tailoring everything specifically to Michael Jordan, especially the shoe itself.  For example, when chief designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) points out that the shoe cannot have as much red as they want due to NBA restrictions, Sonny comes up with the idea of paying the fines for every game they are worn.  On the actual day, all the higher-ups at Nike come to the table, and the Jordans can tell that nerves are on edge.  Part way into a video they put together of Michael’s college playing days, Sonny could tell that their potential man is getting bored by the presentation.  As such, he requests that the clip be stopped and he makes an impassioned speech to Michael about what Nike can do for him and his career.  Shortly thereafter, the Jordans leave.  A few anxious days pass until Sonny gets a call from Deloris telling him that they have decided to do business with Nike.  There are conditions, and again Michael is about to change the industry.  Deloris informs Sonny that her son wants a percentage of all the shoes sold with Michael’s likeness on it.  This is a point beyond which even Sonny is willing to go.  He brings this to Phil by initially telling the CEO that the Jordans have pulled out because of their wanting money from the sales.  Not wanting to lose the person they had worked so hard on getting, Phil relents.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

One of the many things that I appreciate about Air, aside from tangentially being about my favorite basketball player of all time, is that it is a sort of love letter to 1984.  Indeed, had it not been for the person whose shoes make up the subject of the film, it could almost be specifically about the 1980s.  To that end, Michael Jordan (Damian Delano Young) is barely in the movie, and all you ever see is rear shots of him and few words.  To give you a sense of this world, they do a great job with pretty much everything else that goes into filmmaking.  I could see where some might find this to be a distraction.  As much as I enjoyed the music choices, they did not necessarily need a 1980s song for every scene.  Yet, all the choices fit, not simply because they are from that decade, but they also worked well with the scenes in which you hear them.  Even my dad noticed this a few times.  Beyond the music, there is also a suede looking golf shirt worn by Sonny at one point.  I could swear my dad had the same exact shirt.  They did well with the merchandising, the cars, the hair-styles, and anything else you might need to be in the spirit of the times.  Sometimes this sort of periodization can overwhelm a movie, but it all blends seamlessly here.

As strange as a statement as this might sound, there is also a great deal of substance to Air.  One thing that has been coming up lately in my payer life, and has been reinforced a few times by my spiritual director, is the need to sometimes take risks.  There is a line, of course.  Put differently, one should not be reckless.  Then again, one man’s calculated risk is another’s recklessness.  There are those at Nike who see Sonny’s actions as the latter.  The same can be said about some outside of the company, like David.  There is no easy way of defining the line between calculation and foolhardiness.  I can only speak from a place of faith.  There is a great sequence in the film when Sonny is contemplating going directly to Deloris and James, a potentially foolhardy move, before which Sonny meets his old friend George Raveling (Marlon Wayans).  George is one of the assistant coaches for the 1984 Men’s Olympic Basketball team, on which Michael is a player.  While George is surprised that Sonny would go this far for one player, he tells Sonny that if the Nike man truly believes in contacting the Jordans, then this is what needs to be done.  It reminds me of what I heard a nun once say about giving up the world to become enter the cloister.  She likened it to jumping off a cliff.  You have to trust that inner voice telling you it is the right decision and make it.  The stronger that inner conviction, the more likely it comes from God, though this too can be deceiving.  This is why we Christians have spiritual directors, whereas Sonny has George.  Either way, even if Michael had taken his business elsewhere, God is with you.

I was thankful for seeing Air with one of my guides, my dad.  I am thankful, too, for Cameron.  He decided that he was going to review The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which meant I could enjoy my time with my nieces and sister without worrying about having to write a second post.  Still, while I do not want to take away from Cameron’s work, I think you should see Air instead of the other.  There is some cursing in it, but outside of that, it is a testament to trusting in something beyond yourself.  For me, that will always be God.


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