Directed by Ben Affleck | Written by Alex Convery | 112 min | ▲▲▲▲▲
Let me say from the jump — I’ve been to see the Raptors a couple of times, but I’m not big into basketball. I’m not a shoe guy — it seems one of the more ridiculous things to collect, especially if you don’t wear them. And I couldn’t care less about Nike, its brand, or how those Oregonians coaxed Michael Jordan to partner with them.
And, let’s face it, you can’t talk about the Nike phenomenon without talking about sweatshops and the dark side of globalization, or about the awful ubiquity of brands, or the frightening influence corporations have over everything, or about how a few white men can make their fortunes from the incredible gifts of black athletes.
And yet. And yet. I don’t entirely understand how they did it, but Ben Affleck and his collaborators have made a terrific movie, easily one of the best I’ve seen this year.
It’s largely told through the eyes of Sonny Vaccaro, played by an entirely schlubby Matt Damon — he and I are rapidly becoming the same person. He’s the basketball specialist at Nike. When we meet him we see he’s a gambler, comfortable taking big swings at what he believes in. While at times it seems he’s just barely holding it together, somehow the picture suggests he’s heroic.
Nike, in 1984, was third in sales behind Converse and Adidas, both of whom had allocated a bigger portion of their budgets to securing endorsements from the biggest basketball players in the NBA. Promising rookie Michael Jordan, he’s got no interest in Nike — he thinks Converse is cool, the place that already reps Magic, Isiah, and Bird.
Sonny recognizes Jordan’s a once-in-a-generation talent. He calls Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), who won’t give him the time of day. So Sonny gambles — he heads down to North Carolina to meet Michael’s parents in person, Deloris and James (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, both excellent) — much to the chagrin of Falk, Nike’s marketing wizard, Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), and the company boss, Phil Knight (Affleck), a Porsche-driving Buddhist not comfortable with swings, big or otherwise. The only guy who supports him is another Nike executive, Howard White (Chris Tucker).
From there it’s a matter of whether they can convince Jordan to sign. But this movie isn’t really about branding or shoes or even Michael Jordan, it’s about how these middle-aged guys put it all on the line because they wanted to be connected, however tenuously, with greatness. In that way this is a sports movie — not because it’s about who made the shoes for one of the greatest athletes who ever lived — but because it’s about an unlikely underdog who finds a way to win thanks to smarts, hard work, and something intangible nobody else thought of. In that it’s got a lot in common with Moneyball.
It’s also, shamelessly, a movie about the American dream. It’s been proven a myth over and over again, but it’s still what we wish was true.
It’s also got something in common with the better movies from the era it’s set — not just in the terrific needle drops, everything from Bruce Springsteen to Tangerine Dream to Night Ranger, but in the nice balance between a bit of melancholy — the lingering notion all these guys have that their best days might be behind them — and a sharp, self-aware streak of humour. There’s something totally ridiculous about all of this, and these guys know it. What they’re doing isn’t important except in how it benefits Jordan.
Even now I’m not entirely sure how this movie works so well, but I know it did that thing I’m always hoping for when I sit in a dark theatre to see something new — it deked past my critical concerns to transport me, to make me feel something unexpected. And it did it by giving the single best part in the movie to Messina. It’s shocking — he’s one of my least favourite actors in Hollywood. I really can’t stand that guy, but full credit to him, to mix my athletic metaphors, he hits it out of the park.
As does Affleck with his thoughtful and generous direction. Air would make a great double-feature with Good Will Hunting, because in both films Affleck steps out of the way to let his buddy take the spotlight.
It might seem ridiculous to say but Matt Damon is under-appreciated for what he does, and here he brings a Nicholson-esque level of nuance and lack of vanity. His scenes opposite a typically phenomenal Davis are alone worth seeing the movie for.
If I had a gripe, and it’s a tiny one, it’s that I’m not convinced the way they handle Michael Jordan’s presence in the film entirely works — he’s both there and he’s not. I guess I’ll just have to see it again to get a better sense. That’ll be no hardship.