Once upon a time, in the land known as America in the Go-Go Eighties, there lived a man named Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). He worked for Nike as a talent scout, searching far and wide for talent to sign up to promote basketball shoes. Though he toiled day and night, his efforts proved fruitless. Then, in 1984, the answer to his prayers emerged. A young collegiate basketball player named Michael Jordan had risen to national prominence by helping North Carolina win the NCAA championship with an amazing shot in the closing seconds. He was subsequently drafted by the Chicago Bulls and tasked with not only leading them out of obscurity, but to NBA championship glory. Even though he was only eighteen years old, this didn’t phase him in the least. Everyone agreed it was only a matter of when he achieved greatness, not if. No, the biggest question surrounding Jordan was which company he would choose for a highly-lucrative shoe marketing contract.
Enter Vaccaro. He sees Nike’s plan of spending its marketing budget on multiple players as akin to waving a white flag. Sure, they could sign some middling players, but none of them would have the same impact as Jordan. This had never been done before, Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) warned. Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) would never agree to it. This did not deter Sonny, who convinced Phil that Nike needed to be all in on Jordan because Jordan wasn’t just a good basketball player, he was on the cusp of greatness. When Sonny admitted to Phil that the Nike board could make life difficult for him, Phil shrugged it off. “I’ll handle the board.”
With the support of Ray and Phil, Sonny set his sights exclusively on Jordan. He brashly went around Jordan’s agent David Fauk (Chris Messina) and drove to visit Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) in person to ask her permission to court her son. Deloris was skeptical because Adidas and Converse were already in the mix, and they had much more to offer her son than Sonny. Undeterred, Sonny told Deloris to visit Nike last if she wasn’t sold on the bonafides of either of the other suitors.
While Jordan and his family visited the other hopefuls, Sonny and Ray rushed for the development of the most beautiful basketball shoe anyone had ever seen. When Jordan arrived in Beaverton Oregon to hear Nike’s pitch, Sonny laid all of his cards on the table. He bared his soul in front of everyone, telling how Nike and Jordan were meant to be together, because Nike would make Jordan the focus of a marketing campaign for a shoe named after him. Nike would always be there for Jordan, for all of the triumphs and tragedies he was certain to encounter as a professional athlete. Nike would be honored to be in a relationship with Jordan because together, they would transform the world of basketball shoes. Like a marriage, they would compliment each other and make each other better.
After some hesitation and delay, Jordan finally said YES to entering into a long-term relationship with Nike. He would accept Nike’s proposal provided that it gave him a percentage of each shoe sold. This was unprecedented, but for Phil, a little thing like money should not get in the way of both parties from joining hands. With Phil’s blessing, Sonny gave Deloris the good news. Jordan was on board, and soon Nike, the struggling billion-dollar company was succeeding beyond all measure. From that point on, Sonny, Phil, Ray, Deloris and Michael lived happily ever after.
Air is a curious movie. On the surface, it tells the story of a noteworthy critical marketing pitch as a sports underdog story. But it’s really not much of an underdog story, given that it focuses on a bunch of well-paid corporate types who work for a billion-dollar company. Its Eighties fetishism is cute but not remarkable. The performances are solid, but Damon, Affleck, and Bateman can do what they do here sleepwalking. (Chris Tucker is also brilliant as VP Howard White.) Yes, the marketing deal was Earth-shattering and serves as the starting point for sports licensing megadeals going forward. Even with all of that going on, why would two sharp guys like Damon and Affleck decide to make this movie? Then it hit me. The movie’s use of strange needle drops (“Blister in the Sun”, “Time After Time”, “Sister Christian” to name a few) and Eighties movie theme music (“Risky Business”, “Body Double”) provided the first clues. Then, as Sonny goes through the paces of courting, outmaneuvering rival suitors and ultimately winning Michael Jordan’s approval, I realized that the movie is actually a romantic comedy. Damon’s character plays the role of the awkward but loveable loser (think Molly Ringwald or John Cusack), while Jordan is his handsome and unattainable object of desire. Given the atomic bomb treatment Damon and Affleck previously gave to medieval knights in The Last Duel, this movie finally made perfect sense. Turning this story of marketing prowess into a gay rom-com is as subversive as it gets. Recommended.
I was skeptical walking into Air. The story of the hoops (sorry) Nike had to jump through in order for Michael Jordan to agree to a marketing contract wasn’t one that I was particularly interested in. As a lifelong Detroit Pistons fan, I respect Jordan but never was a fan. That being said, I put my prejudices aside and found myself enjoying the movie. As someone who grew up immersed in American Eighties popular culture, I respected the movie’s commitment to authentically recreating that period in time. People who are in love with this decade will find much to pour over (songs, hair gel, VCRs, hand-held video games, car cell phones, etc.). The witty, Sorkin-inspired screenplay provides lots of great moments for every member of the cast. Lastly, the plot is constructed as a sports underdog story, with Team Nike in the role of the hungry and disrespected upstarts outsmarting and outmaneuvering its bitter rivals for the rights to land Jordan, a move that will save their floundering basketball shoe division.
I found myself rooting for this group of middle-aged white men as if they were playing for the Major League Baseball championship against the Yankees, even though they really aren’t underdogs in the traditional sense. First, none of them actually play a sport. (Sonny is such a non-athlete he can’t even jog for a minute without wheezing.) Second, they’re all well-paid corporate types who would have had no trouble landing new jobs if Nike actually did let them all go. Third, Nike had revenue of almost a billion dollars in 1984, so they were hardly a company on the verge of bankruptcy. Yes, the movie does imply that Sonny’s job was on the line, but with his sports knowledge he certainly could get work as a scout.
Air also provides an interesting historical context for the world of sports and marketing today. Back in 1984, it was unheard of for an athlete, especially a rookie, to have a clothing line named after them. The movie makes a point of stating that NBA all-stars Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Julius Irving promoted Converse shoes, not something with their name on it. With Air Jordan shoes, the athlete marketed the product and vice versa. Almost forty years later, collegiate athletes are finally able to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL), something Michael Jordan could never do until after he turned pro.
With all this in mind, I still didn’t understand why Affleck and Damon were interested in telling this particular story, which doesn’t scream out for a “motion picture with big stars” treatment. Then, while the story unfolded, I figured it out. They transformed what is a very straightforward story of corporate wheeling and dealing and turned it into a romantic comedy. And not just a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, a gay romantic comedy. Allow me to explain.
When the movie opens, there’s a shot of Sonny driving with the Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun” playing on his car radio. (It was definitely on the soundtrack. I’m not 100% sure it was on his radio, but go with me here.) I thought, what an odd song to associate with a middle-aged man. I’d heard the song when I was growing up in 1984, but I doubt that someone like Sonny would have ever heard it. So why does the movie associate Sonny, a pasty and overweight middle-aged man with a song about raging hormones and the awkward sexual awakening that comes with it?
As I mentioned above, the movie is about Sonny and several of his colleagues landing Michael Jordan to agree to a lucrative marketing deal. In business terminology, the Nike guys want Jordan to “jump into bed with them”. I believe Affleck and Damon saw the story as one of corporate seduction and took that as their point of entry to subvert the rom-com genre. In their eyes, Sonny is the unlucky loser pining after an unattainable object of desire: Michael Jordan. His friends–Phil (Affleck), Rob (Bateman), Howard (Tucker) and Peter (Maher) are his support group, all pulling for him and doing whatever they can to help him win the affection of the person of his dreams–an eighteen year-old Black man who plays basketball.
In the early going, Sonny is depicted as a lonely guy. He visits high schools alone, he lives alone and usually eats by himself. While he does have dinner with longtime friend George (Marlon Wayans), Sonny has no friends outside of work. He certainly has no women in his life. (I’ll get to that later.) Sonny has nothing in his life that excites him until he sets his sights on Michael Jordan. From that point on, his life has meaning and purpose and he focuses all of his energy on getting Jordan to notice him.
I keep mentioning that Air puts Jordan into the role of the unattainable love interest. Proof of this is how the movie depicts and frames Jordan as a person. We never see the face of the actor playing him, and he only says a handful of words that are barely audible. Jordan is so far removed from normal people, the movie only shows him in video clips. He’s a young prince destined for greatness, while Sonny is a broken-down man whose life is trending downwards. Only Jordan reignites Sonny’s passions.
Before seeing Air, someone who pops up on my Twitter feed mentioned how the movie uses musical cues from Risky Business unironically. When I read that, I wondered why a movie about Nike marketing executives would include music from a movie about a young man whose dream girl is a prostitute. When that same music is used within Air, wouldn’t the context alone signify the filmmakers ironic intentions?
The music in question, Tangerine Dream’s “Making Love on a Real Train”, plays while Joel (Tom Cruise) is fulfilling one of his fantasies by having sex with Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) on a Chicago train. In Air, the same music is played while Sonny and Phil discuss how to win over Jordan as a client. For me, the association made by Air with Risky Business couldn’t be more explicit. Sonny and Phil, Jordan is their fantasy personified and they will do whatever it takes to buy his affection.
Air also incorporated instrumental music from Body Double, specifically the music on the soundtrack when Jake (Craig Wasson) watches Holly (Melanie Griffith) from afar via a telescope while she dances erotically. Holly’s sensuality paralyzes Jake from realizing the trap he’s been drawn into. In a similar way, Sonny and the other men of Nike are enthralled by images of Jordan’s athletic prowess on television. In both cases, the hero is overpowered by their male gaze.
If you’ve looked at the musical playlist for Air, you probably realize that I’ve been cherry-picking songs that make my argument. True, there are other songs on the soundtrack that have nothing to do with romance or longing. There’s “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen, “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash and so on. However, just because every song played on the soundtrack doesn’t fit with the underlying theme of a rom-com doesn’t mean that what I believe the movie is about isn’t true. Not every song in Sixteen Candles was about unrequited love. Why else would Air include Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” (You know those boys don’t want to play no more with you, it’s true), REO Speedwagon’s “I can’t fight this feeling anymore” and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody (Loves me better)”?
When Sonny breaks protocol by speaking directly to Jordan’s mother and declares his intent to court her son, he’s making a classic rom-com move. This pisses off Jordan’s agent David Fauk (Chris Messina), but Sonny had no choice because Fauk was effectively cockblocking him. While Jordan and his mother visit and ultimately decide against potential suitors Converse and Adidas, Sonny enlists in-house designer Peter to make the most beautiful basketball shoe ever made. When finally Jordan visits Nike headquarters in Beaverton Oregon, the movie shows its true rom-com colors.
At a critical point in the meeting, Rob shows a video of clips intended for the marketing campaign. When the meeting appears to be going south, Sonny shuts off the video and does something incredible. He states how much he admires all that Jordan has done and what he will do. If you’ve seen only one rom-com, you have to recognize that this is the hail-mary moment where the guy professes his undying love for the girl of his dreams. In Sonny’s case, he’s essentially making an impassioned case for Jordan’s hand in marriage.
When Jordan and company leave, all Sonny can do is wait patiently by the phone for Jordan’s answer. Sonny and his friends are so anxious that they can’t sleep or eat. They spend sleepless nights waiting by the phone for a word from Jordan’s camp. The soundtrack knowingly plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, a song that clarifies what type of story Affleck and Damon are telling:
Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick
And think of you
Caught up in circles
Confusion is nothing new
Flashback, warm nights
Almost left behind
Suitcases of memories
If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting
Time after time
If there is any doubt that Air is actually a love story, that should eliminate it.
I mentioned above that Air isn’t just a rom-com, it’s a gay rom-com. Sonny, an unlucky and unloved older man, spends almost the entire movie pining after Michael Jordan. I don’t believe the movie is alluding to Sonny’s feelings for Jordan in a brotherly love sense. In fact, the movie goes to great lengths to depict Sonny as a closeted gay man.
Sonny has no women in his life. In fact, aside from Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) he never interacts with any other women throughout the movie. When he shops at the local market, he buys sports magazines instead of Playboy or Penthouse. He spends his nights at home watching video tapes of athletes. There’s a female colleague who sits in the cubicle outside Sonny’s office who is a knockout that he doesn’t give the time of day to. When he tries to convince Phil to devote the entire $250k budget on one player, he replays Jordan’s winning shot in the NCAA championship game over and over like a man enjoying his favorite moment from a porno. (Substitute “catch and shoot” for “pop shot”.) The notion that Sonny spends his time at work in a place called “The Tape Room” made me think of the secluded area in video stores for pornos and laughed. Yep, Sonny’s definitely a guy you can envision spending his waking hours watching tapes alone.
I found it odd that none of the other men in the movie have any interest in women, either. Phil, a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars, seems to be overcompensating for something with his wacky sports attire and purple sports car. There was also the strange admission from Rob that he can only see his daughter for a four hour supervised visit in a public park. Lastly, there’s agent Fauk.
Fauk, like the men at Nike, also has no interest in the opposite sex. His secretary is also a knockout, but he barely acknowledges her. When he learns Sonny went behind his back to meet with Jordan’s mom, he calls Sonny and says that he’s going to tie him down and nibble on his balls. Air sets up Fauk and Sonny as heated rivals for Jordan’s attention (affection). Fauk is full of testosterone like someone who plays sports, while Sonny is the cerebral and clumsy nerd. Fauk also curiously prefers to eat alone. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, the two rivals could have been lovers, under different circumstances. Regardless, I’ve never seen a movie where so many men who are attractive enough and have the means to be in a romantic relationship choose not to. Yes, this movie isn’t supposed to be about their lives outside of work. But for the movie to not include even a passing mention or a glimpse of a romantic partner for any of the male characters in this movie is too intentional of a choice to be coincidence.
It’s true that Jordan was a once-in-a-generational talent that any company would do whatever it takes to line up as a client. All’s fair in love in war, after all. However, it is also true that Air is about a group of middle-aged men thirsting after a young man. Affleck and Damon have effectively subverted the sports movie in a way that I never would have thought possible. This is the reason why they made this movie. Just as their previous film, The Last Duel, skewered the myth of the honorable and noble knights, Air throws the sports underdog genre for a loop by making it an all male romantic comedy. Those geniuses who gave us Good Will Hunting have done it again.