Matt Damon and Viola Davis appear as Sonny Vaccaro and Deloris Jordan in "Air." (Photo courtesy Amazon Studios)

Shoes are the star in riveting ‘Air’

I don’t know much about basketball. I know less about Nike, and, to me, Jordan is mostly just the guy from “Space Jam.”

“Air” is composed almost entirely of people talking about shoes — riveting depictions of people talking about shoes.

The film, which made a brief appearance in local theaters a couple of months ago and is now streaming on Amazon, follows the 1984 effort by Nike’s floundering basketball division to sign Michael Jordan.

I don’t know much about basketball. I know less about Nike, and, to me, Jordan is mostly just the guy from “Space Jam.” But “Air” enthralled me.

“Air” feels at times like a feature-length advertisement for Nike, but it balances that with a largely critical take on capitalism and corporate growth as stifling to ingenuity. I took it more to be a spectacular biopic for an influential individual in Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, and also as an interesting period piece about a key moment in the history of capitalism and sports, when the personality became forever entangled in the product.

Vaccaro is portrayed early and often as a risk-taker with a biting intuition — one who maybe doesn’t know when to quit. He works for Nike and is responsible for identifying which athletes they should pursue for marketing deals. He bets the department’s entire budget on one athlete — on Jordan — who doesn’t want to even meet with Nike.

“Air” is a story about recognizing opportunities and taking risks — it also interestingly says that the act of taking the risk is valuable even if it doesn’t pay off.

“Just because you lose doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good bet,” Vaccaro says in one exchange.

Damon is, throughout “Air,” stunning — and surrounded by other great actors delivering other great performances. Standing above the pack and truly making an impact is Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother Deloris.

Three key scenes in the film — probably the most important scenes — center on conversations between Sonny and Deloris.

While the central theme of the film is Sonny’s bold, maybe reckless endeavor to sign Jordan, it also explores the loss of personality in a growing company and celebrates individuals who stand up to those monolithic corporations and enact change.

The film, in its third act, doubles down on that second point, as Deloris champions her son getting a cut of all revenue from the Air Jordan. It connects Sonny’s involvement with that deal to his real-world involvement in the more recent efforts of college athletes to be financially compensated for the use of their images.

Sonny tells Deloris that’s not how the industry works — she contends that maybe it needs to change.

“Air” is far more interesting than a movie about a shoe marketing deal might sound. There’s plenty here to enjoy without a solid grasp on the history of basketball — and it does a good job of making those dynamics, like the rivalry between Nike, Converse and Adidas accessible. It’s a compelling story about chasing a feeling and forcing a change.

“Air” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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