Nike: A True Underdog Story?


I've been trying to figure out the thought process that led to the creation of Air, the new Amazon PrimeWhile Netflix might be the largest streaming seervice right now, other major contenders have come into the game. One of the biggest, and best funded, is Amazon Prime, the streaming-service add-on packing with free delivery and all kinds of other perks Amazon gives its members. And, with the backing of its corporate parent, this streaming service very well could become the market leader. film about the creation of the Air Jordans. My struggle really comes down to a single question: why? Why did this story deserve the movie treatment. Were there people out there that didn't think of Nike as the biggest sneaker brand in the country? Is there anyone left that hasn't heard of Michael Jordan and the massive impact he had on professional basketball? Who thought making a movie about this subject was a good idea?

The reason I ask this is because it doesn't feel, like even forty years after the shoes came out, that we're far enough removed from the subject matter that fictionalizing and documenting the story is really essential. Michael Jordan hasn't played basketball in 20 years but his name is still synonymous with the sport. Air Jordans are still sold today. Nike is the biggest sneaker brand around, and that doesn't seem like it's ever going to change. And yet the movie tries to act like there's some doubt over whether Nike can claw its way up from its spot as the number four sneaker maker in the world, as if there was ever any question over if Michael Jordan would sign with the company. We all know it so... what's the point?

Look, the film is well made and well acted. If this movie came out, say, forty years from now when, maybe, Nike was no longer the number one sneaker brand and the Air Jordans were no longer made (and maybe some player came along that truly eclipsed Michal Jordan) then... sure, maybe a film about this story would be interesting. But right now, in 2023, when everyone that could be interested in seeing a 1980s set film about the rise of Michael Jordan and Nike actually lived through that era, the film feels weightless. Pointless, even. It's just a decently made movie congratulating Nike on their smart decision to gobble up Michael Jordan when they could. Hurray?

The film is really all about Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a talent scout for Nike. His job is to go around the country looking for up and coming talent and seeing if they really have what it takes to make it in pro sports. With his real world knowledge, Sonny would then make recommendations about which players Nike should try and recruit to their brand. The only problems is that Nike is a third-tier sneaker company and they lack the resources to really court the big up-and-coming players each year. They can't compete with the likes of Converse and Adidas, so they have to take what they can take.

But then Sonny sees tape of Michal Jordan playing basketball and he sees a star. And not just a star but the star, the man that could become the best of the best. Instead of trying to court three or so players for the '84 sneaker line, Sonny wants to get just one: Michael Jordan. This requires convincing his bosses, Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck). That takes a lot of work on its own... but then he also has to convince Michael Jordan (who really wants to go to Converse as he loves those shoes). So Sonny goes to Michael's mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), to convince them to give Nike a meeting. And even then they still have to knock it out of the park. They have to show Michael something he won't see anywhere else. They have to show him the shoe, his shoe, the shoe that will become synonymous with Michael Jordan. And, even then... it might not work.

But then, of course it did. And that's the issue with taking this tack for the movie. Air Jordans are a name that lives on even now, and they were absolutely iconic back in the day. The bright colors, and striking design, those shoes became an indelible part of 1980s and 1990s fashion. Hell, "Nike Air" is still a term thrown around now (I have a pair of Air Force Ones right now). This movie is pitching a story that everyone, at some level, already kind of knows. Sure, Nike was an also-ran back in the day and this show built their entire brand. That's an interesting factoid. It's not interesting enough for a whole movie, though.

I think the big issue is that the film pitches its story entirely from Nike's perspective. Hell, Michael is mentioned time and again in the film but technically we never see him, not really. We see him on tape, in the games Sonny watches. We see him front behind, or his hand, when he's in a meeting with the Nike guys. Instead of Michael we get his mother, Delores, and she's interesting, sure. But it's a movie that, deep down, is all about Michael and Mr. Jordan is nowhere to be found in the actual story.

A more interesting story, I think, would have been tracking the parallel tales of Michael Jordan's rise as a high school and college player alongside Nike's struggles to make it in the sneaker business. As the movie points out, because a couple of characters tell us more than once, Nike thought about scrapping their basketball shoe business. What we never see is why. What makes their shoes better (or worse) than Converse or Adidas or anyone else? We get the factoid without the details to sell it, just like we get the description of Michael Jordan as an amazing player without the details to sell it.

Sonny wants to sell his bosses on the idea of just grabbing Michael Jordan. He has to convince them, so he shows one clip... and they aren't sold. But he keeps pushing, all on his own, and eventually they just give in and let him do what he wants for... reasons. We;re told, "Michael is going to be an amazing NBA player," but the movie never actually sells us on this idea with real footage of Michael proving he's the best. It's taken on faith (because, again, we all know Michael Jordan was an amazing player). It's all the film telling us without showing us.

If we had a longer story, maybe a mini-series, that tracked both Michael's rise alongside Nike's struggles, then the story could tie the two halves together. We'd have the details that sell us on how amazing Michael is. We have the experience to show how Nike needed to make one big push, one giant gamble, that, in the end, actually paid off. A story that really shows us the history of these characters and their real struggles could have sold us on how the two sides coming together truly benefited them both. That would have been a story worth seeing.

What's odd and interesting is that the one time the film gets out of its own way, where it stops telling us stuff and actually shows us something, that's when it got interesting. There's a sequence of the prototype Air Jordans being made, and watching the guys bounce ideas and come up with the design only to see it revealed, that was interesting. You could actually feel the excitement over these shoes as the guys created something new and flashy and iconic. The film needed more of that and less hammering home the idea that, somehow, Michael Jordan was worth getting. We know that, guys. You don't have to sell us on it.

Air feels less like a real movie and more like a victory lap for Nike. They made a brilliant gamble, put all their eggs one year into the basket of the guy that would go on to dominate professional basketball for twenty years. They didn't know it would work but, with hindsight, duh, of course it worked. Good for Nike... but we didn't need this as a movie.