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Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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Air is a captivating, fleet-of-foot account of a pivotal moment in sport and marketing history.


Designing a really big shoe
Designing a really big shoe

Air and Moneyball have a lot in common.

Both are about taking make-or-break risks on a shoestring budget. Both are about a person’s “worth.”

In Air, it’s about putting an entire endorsement budget — a $250,000 spend originally intended to be spread across three or four basketball players — into one kid who hasn’t even stepped onto an NBA court. As a result, the ongoing powerhouse that is Air Jordan was born. In the great baseball movie Moneyball, it’s about studying the numbers and identifying the affordable players who — when brought together — can perform like championship contenders. In the end, the Oakland A’s make a run for the World Series.

Both tell a story that’s mostly cerebral and — in theory — shouldn’t work as a movie. Both are “sports” movies, but neither spends much time dealing with the actual game play. They’re about the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing and strategery, and they prove business can make for highly entertaining — even inspirational — drama.

In Moneyball, when Brad Pitt as Billy Beane delivers what’s supposed to be a locker room pep talk, it (quite humorously) turns out to be a dud. In Air, though, one of the biggest and best surprises is a powerful pitch delivered by Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro in a Nike conference room. Michael Jordan and his parents are there as Sonny shifts direction during a pre-planned presentation that’s derailing, goes off-script and delivers an impromptu speech about how nobody in the room — except for Michael — will be remembered by history. That scene is destined to be a source of countless memes on LinkedIn.

No doubt about it.

Just watch it.

Just do it.


Air opens with a great montage of 1980s pop culture and historical highlights. The grainy vintage footage seamlessly blends into the initial frames of Damon on-screen as Sonny.

Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis)
Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis)

Sonny’s a gambler who’s no stranger to casinos and placing bets on sports stars. Problem is, while he might be winning in the casino, he’s losing in the boardroom. His calls impacting the Nike basketball line are on a losing streak. It doesn’t get any easier when limited funds are available to entice top players and rising stars, particularly when the top brands, Adidas and Converse, are also competing for the same talent.

And when it comes to Michael Jordan, he doesn’t even like the Nike brand, which is a relatively minor player with only 17% of the market share.

What ensues is a sharp original screenplay — “inspired” by the actual events — written by first time screenwriter Alex Convery.

Ben Affleck co-stars as Nike founder Phil Knight, a guy who’s quite comfortable reclining with his bare feet up on his office desk. Affleck also directs this true-story romp; he manages to hold it all together and successfully sticks the ending this time, unlike his Oscar-winning Argo, which, even though it was also based on a true story from the ’80s — the Iranian hostage crisis — went off the rails with a silly Hollywood-style ending.

That said, there is a key dramatic turning point that doesn’t play quite right. Michael’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis) makes a contractual demand that Michael be paid a percentage of each and every Jordan-branded shoe sold. What should be a seemingly insurmountable challenge that upends all the business rules of the day counter-intuitively all too quickly becomes a non-event thanks to a whiplash-inducing change of heart from Phil Knight.

Granted, Air isn’t a dramatized documentary and maybe it was a little like that in reality, but as a movie narrative, it plays like a missed source of angst and gut checks.

Nonetheless, the point made still lands a punch: you’re remembered for the rules you break.

Air Sole

Nike broke lots of rules back in the 1980s as this whole new product line took flight and that’s why Air turns into such a kick to watch.

The humor is plentiful as Matt Damon leaves Jason Bourne in the past and puts on some waistline pudge. It’s a great cast as a whole, further supported by Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker and Marlon Wayans (as George Raveling, who instills some key insights into a struggling Sonny Vaccaro).

But it’s not just the Moneyball meets The Big Short vibe, or the all-star cast gets a great script one-two punch.

Phil Knight (Ben Affleck)
Phil Knight (Ben Affleck)

Don’t overlook Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), Nike’s mad scientist of shoe design. His entire life revolves around thinking about, dreaming about and designing basketball shoes. Even Sonny and Phil aren’t into it as much as this guy. Their initial design meeting is practically torn out of Mission: Impossible (in a humorous way). It’s a great movie moment that’s followed up with a great pre-end credits callout to Peter, who also designed the Air Jordan logo. Sadly, he passed away shortly before Air started production.

Breathe in the salty freshness of Air and savor how it positions a shoe in business history. A shoe, something that hasn’t experienced a fundamental change in hundreds of years. A shoe that’s designed around an 18-year-old who was cut from his high school basketball team and who willed his way into the NBA.

Sonny and Phil — flying high on the unparalleled success of Michael Jordan’s basketball skills — wind up taking a business from $3 million in annual revenue to a whopping $126 million in the first year of the Air Jordan brand. Now, it’s a massive line hauling in $5 billion annually.  

A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it and a movie is only a movie until an audience leaves feeling inspired.