In praise(?) of capitalism: Ben Affleck’s Air

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Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro and Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser in AIR. // Photo by Ana Carballosa

The key sequence in Air, Ben Affleck’s account of the creation of Nike’s iconic Air Jordan sneaker, comes halfway through the film. It’s 1985, and Nike marketing exec Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is working through the weekend with his boss, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), on a pitch to partner with up-and-coming NBA star Michael Jordan.

Strasser tells Vaccaro he’s realized that Bruce Springsteen’s then-recent “Born in the U.S.A.” is not about the American dream but being kicked down by the system, which is ironic because the song is Strasser’s pump-up jam for his daily commute. This is Strasser’s opener to tell Vaccaro how desperately he needs their plan to attract Jordan to succeed. He’s giving up visitation time with his daughter to be here, his daughter, to whom he gifts endless pairs of Nikes so he’ll have value in her eyes. Vaccaro nods understandingly. Moments later, he presents Strasser with a cupcake. For his birthday. That he’s spending at work. Born in the U.S.A. indeed.

Nuts-and-bolts-wise, Air is a solid effort from Affleck that understands its pedigree and setting authentically. It’s a movie about American ingenuity and the power of visionary thinking and individual striving, but in more ways than one. In the spirit of Springsteen’s hit, Air depicts the cost of achieving the “American Dream.” It’s late nights, failed marriages, and dogged commitment to your job at the cost of all else. The trouble is, it’s unclear if Air understands how unhealthy and unfair those costs are.

Air follows Vaccaro as he courts (heh) Jordan to work with Nike. Vaccaro’s approach is twofold. Create a shoe line focused on the rookie Jordan, in whom Vaccaro sees greatness. Two: Convince Jordan to meet with Nike by impressing the power behind his ascent to basketball royalty—Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis). It’s a tough sell that requires Vaccaro to go behind the backs of skeptics like Strasser and Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck, in an awkward-but-accurate wig), as well as Jordan’s disapproving agent (Chris Messina).

To its credit, Air is a strong ensemble piece. Everyone, from Messina’s coke-high-exuding sports agent to Matthew Maher’s obsessive shoe designer to Davis’ savvy mom, gets meaty lines and communicates who they are without saying too much directly. The film’s aesthetic view of the ’80s also feels more functional than nostalgic. The Nike office is a fresher version of familiar corporate office parks with nice-but-outdated decor, only here it’s new; the origin story of your breakroom’s squishy leather nap couch. This movie doesn’t depict the “glory days” of the ’80s but rather the people who lived through them. The question becomes how much the film—and Affleck—condone their circumstances.

Air is posited as an underdog story. When it takes place, Nike accounts for only 17% of the athletic shoe market. Knight bets big on the basketball division, for which Vaccaro finds athletes for Nike to endorse. Most of the film involves Vaccaro convincing his superiors to trust his instincts so he can take the company from moderate to significant success. It’s a journey from zero to hero, but in this case, the “zero” is a publicly-traded shoe company whose products at that time were made in sweatshops (a fact it kind of acknowledges so you won’t feel weird). That’s capitalism, baby!

In the parts involving the Jordan family, Michael himself barely appears—we never see his face. This choice cleverly shifts the focus to Deloris and her role in her son’s career. However, it also has the effect of making Michael into a human MacGuffin or, more to Air’s ethos, a god. Air confirms this when, during their big pitch meeting, Vaccaro sincerely claims the Nike execs are mere mortals, whereas Jordan is guaranteed immortality and that his association with their brand will give their puny lives meaning. 

Are we meant to feel uncomfortable? Should we be looking at Nike’s Beaverton office building and find it unpleasantly similar to the ones most of us work in every day? Maybe. I’m of the mind that nobody should love their corporate jobs this much. Speeches like Bateman’s—both humanizing and pathetic—make it seem like Affleck understands this. But in Vaccaro’s monologue to the Jordans, he cuts in real footage of Jordan’s career that appears like hero worship. The postscript, detailing how everyone who worked on the Air Jordan line went on to great acclaim, suggests all those late nights and sacrifices are the cost of success. All this in the service of shoes, mass-produced by faceless, unnamed workers being denied a living wage for their efforts.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical. But Air, part of a wave of movies that treat corporate products as their own IP with questionably worthy origin stories, feels cynical whether it means to or not. It’s not a “Born in the U.S.A.”-style critique of American culture, but rather sees the circumstances Springsteen sings about as the unfortunately necessary price of business. We should grasp at the heels of the idols that stride through our world, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to do so, because maybe if the experience is hard enough, they’ll make a movie about it one day.

Categories: Movies