How 'The Last Dance' Informed Ben Affleck's 'Air'
Jordan Is In 'Air' More Than You Think
It might strike viewers as odd that a person whose face is never seen, with barely any dialogue, would be the main character of a movie. But that is the case with Air, a crowd-pleasing sports biopic concerned with the creation of a brand, an ideal more than a man. In a rousing film directed by Ben Affleck, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is a basketball guru working for Nike, a tertiary company helmed by Phil Knight (Affleck), in search of someone who has the proverbial “it” factor. Vaccaro thinks they might have found that guy in Michael Jordan.
The third pick in the draft, up to that point, Jordan was most famous for his game winning shot for UNC in the national championship game. No one, at the time, could envision what he would become (if they could, he wouldn’t have gone third). No one except Vaccaro. The entirety of Air becomes Vaccaro’s attempt to woo MJ, so to speak. On its face, Jordan’s scant presence would appear to be only incidental, gimmicky, or a McGuffin.
To understand how MJ is more than that, however, you must have watched The Last Dance. The 10-part ESPN docuseries provides a roadmap to see how Air is emblematic of everything Jordan is, and why that adherence to the Jordan myth is the film’s primary flaw.
When The Last Dance premiered, it was billed as a behind the scenes look at the end of an era. For a decade, the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls ruled the NBA landscape. Their ascent matched the elevation of the superstar: Jordan, who would become an athlete who seemed to transcend sports. We see his many battles with the Detroit Pistons during the 1980s, his struggle to trust his teammates, his continued pursuit to climb the proverbial mountain top in search for championship greatness (a feat he and the Bulls accomplished six times during the 90s). Most of all, we see the creation of Jordan the brand—the media mogul and shoe salesman—which would lead to him becoming sports’ first billion-dollar athlete.
While MJ’s partnership with Nike takes up only a sliver of the series in episode five, it does provide some useful grounding for understanding Air. In The Last Dance, MJ and his agent David Falk (played fictionally in Air by Chris Messina) describe the story of how they became linked to the shoe company: Converse wouldn’t tailor their shoe to MJ’s possible star power and Adidas was hampered by an internal leadership dilemma. Jordan didn’t want to take the meeting with Nike; his mother Deloris Jordan twisted his arm to at least hear them out. Hearing Falk tell the story, he envisioned a shoe for MJ that could be marketed like Arthur Ashe’s singular tennis rackets, wanted Jordan to meet with Nike, and even conceived of the name Air Jordan (based on the company’s air sole technology). Neither ever mention Knight or Vaccaro.
Air has a different story. The script written by Alex Convery envisions the journey to sign to MJ as a near-singular pursuit supported by Knight, marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) but opposed by Falk. MJ doesn’t physically figure into much of the proceedings. Rather his impact is felt spiritually.
You feel it in the first scene, where Vaccaro, a noted gambler in life but especially at the craps table, takes a swing through Vegas on his way back to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. It’s a tiny aspect (and maybe even unintended) but Jordan, later in his career, also became a gambler. So much so that his first hiatus from basketball in 1994, which occurred after his father’s sudden murder at the hand of thieves, was rumored to be instigated to avoid an impending suspension by commissioner David Stern stemming from his habit. There are several sequences in The Last Dance where MJ has a side bet going, with one memorable instance seeing him, postgame, flipping quarters with the United Center security. Gambling becomes a natural extension of the unbridled, near maniacal competitiveness that would eventually make him the greatest ever basketball player Perhaps, you can interpret Vaccaro as a spiritual double to MJ. Not just in their shared propensity to wager. But because of their similar desire to win at all costs.
Air, however, attempts to view that ethos through a capitalist lens. Consider the moment in episode seven of The Last Dance where Jordan is asked if he pushed his teammates too hard. “Winning has a price and leadership has price,” explains Jordan. “When people see this, they're gonna say, ‘he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you because you never won anything.” A montage of his battles, his victories, his work ethic play as a bombastically percussive score surges forward. The sequence is meant to exhibit his intense love of the game. In actuality, it demonstrates his unnerving madman myopia. As does his persistent refrain, “and I took that personally.” For Jordan, to succeed in basketball and in life requires a single track that doesn’t consider the feelings of teammates and friends when those feelings get in the way of his primary goal. It’s an ethos not unlike what’s expected to succeed in capitalist ventures too.
With his film, Affleck attempts to be both the spiritual torch bearer of MJ’s essence while critiquing it, and in return, the system of capitalism itself. This turn, unfortunately, doesn’t suit the film. Vaccaro eventually realizes that his single-minded pursuit—the kind that caused him to show up at Deloris’ (Viola Davis) front door—has far-reaching consequences. If he fails, Nike will fold the sports department, causing many to lose their jobs including Strasser, who every week delivers a pair of Nike sneakers to his daughter during visitations so she might like him. Vaccaro attempts to be more compassionate; he attempts to consider the grave risk posed by Knight, who has a board to answer to if they don’t succeed. These stakes bear little weight because who cares if Knight, a multi-million dollar CEO is vexed by financial loss? It’s only the sturdy character work by Damon, Bateman and Affleck in their performances that gives any of this some semblance of ache.
The creakiness partly stems from the film trying to apply a sports mindset to the game of capitalism. It also arises from the script trying to metaphorically show the two sides of Jordan without actually showing him. We see him through the eyes of his mother, Deloris. His gain becomes the gain of the Jordan family, a chance of upward mobility for others. It’s also representative of Jordan’s unflinching belief in himself, the kind necessary for strivers to become commanders of their own destiny.
It’s charming, but not wholly successful. Unless you find the image of the black billionaire as inherently inspirational. For much of his career, the outwardly apolitical Jordan has rendered his athletic and financial success as a political statement. The Last Dance somewhat covers this subject when it recalls Jordan’s statement “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in relation to the MJ’s unwillingness to endorse Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat running for Senate in North Carolina against Jesse Helms in 1990. As the most prominent black person in America, other than Oprah, Jordan felt that his very presence was a call to action. Any other words were unnecessary.
Air makes the same mistake; by pitching Deloris’ desire to get a fair share of Nike’s profit pie as in itself a radically black statement, the film confuses the very presence of an expense account as sound activism. But what is activism when the rich only get richer? And is activism solely an individualist pursuit? The latter should inherently be a “no.” Unless one believes in trickle down activism (the success of one leads to the prosperity of all). Similarly, Vaccaro’s triumph is treated as a win for all. When, in actuality, is only further solidified the top 1% while elevating the few black folks into their circle.
Affleck’s film wants to have it all: Vaccaro believes in Jordan, but not in the sustainability of his ethos for a successful workplace culture. The film wants to graft off his legend, but lacks coherency of what that legend means in a wider political setting. It uses Jordan’s spirit to give itself a hardened edge, but barely considers what that dogged pursuit says about capitalism. Watching The Last Dance, in this regard, reveals the smart intentionality to marry the legend of Jordan into a story that doesn’t visibly feature him, in the process, rendering him into a primary character, if only symbolically. But too often Air wants Jordan without the baggage of Jordan, and it nearly destroys the film.