Fighting for your Life in 'The Survivor'
There's no hiding the horrors of war in this inspiring story of survival
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I am a huge basketball fan. It started when I was roughly 13 or 14 years old. This is before smartphones and fast, reliable internet. I’m showing my age. I used to go to the local library and sift through the NBA Encyclopedia. I would read over all the different statistics of various players, memorizing numbers and years. I could tell you that in the ‘99-’00 season Tim Duncan averaged a career-best 23.2 points per game and 12.4 rebounds. I was obsessed with stats and spent as much time studying them as I would my homework.
I played it often as well. I had my sneakers, shorts, and beaten-up t-shirts. My gear if you will. Thus far, you can picture me as your run-of-the-mill recreational ball-playing NBA superfan. And here is where I draw a line.
Let’s talk about ‘kicks’, slang for sneakers. I was a utility kind of guy, caring less about style or fashion and more about sturdiness, durability, and comfort. There’s a story that early in his career, Michael Jordan’s sneakers used to leave him with bloody feet. They were that rigid. But boy did they look flashy.
I’ve never owned a pair of Jordans, the Nike sneakers branded and endorsed by Michael Jordan, the GOAT in many circles. They were always either too expensive or too clunky for my tastes. But they flew off the shelves. Every edition. I had friends who would sleep in the parking lots the night before a Jordan sneaker release and there would still be a line around the block. Many would purchase but not even wear these sneakers, instead stashing them as collector items.
What’s the appeal you might wonder? I passed on them numerous times and never batted an eyelash. Well, there are the unique color combinations of red, black, and white (team colors for the Chicago Bulls) and the fact that only a limited number of shoes were available, making each version a rare commodity. But I would argue that it’s this last point that made (and still make) Jordan’s sneakers so appealing.
It’s the idea that if you put on these sneakers you can fly just like Michael. I think this cuts right to the core of what makes the Air Jordan brand so successful. “If I could be like Mike” went the catchy jingle that showed up in the early nineties. Popularly parodied by Charles Barkley during that Dream Team run in 1992. Michael Jordan brought something to basketball, and sports at large that had never been seen before. A kind of athleticism, grace, and competitiveness that made him not only a spectacle but practically an artist, expressing himself on the court and in the air with every movement.
Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a talent scout at Nike, saw something in Michael Jordan before many others did. Taking place in 1984, Air sheds light on the early years of the sports brand with the famous Swoosh. Back when they were best known for running shoes and a very low market share. Companies like Adidas and Converse dominated the sports apparel industry while the fledgling Nike brand was a minor threat with minimal exposure.
Tasked by CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) to salvage the highly unsuccessful basketball shoe division, Sonny sees something in Jordan, who at the time was merely a rookie recently drafted into the NBA. After watching a commercial of Arthur Ashe endorsing his own tennis racket and Jordan highlights simultaneously, Sonny becomes convinced that MJ’s once-in-a-generation ability combined with a shoe built off of his identity as an athlete would revolutionize the industry.
Going on not much more than a hunch, Sunny speaks with George Raveling (Marlon Wayans), Nike’s Marketing Director, to help him set up a meeting with Jordan’s parents. Sonny travels to North Carolina to speak with the Jordans, specifically Jordan’s mother Delores, played brilliantly by Viola Davis. Sonny tells Delores exactly how her meetings with competitors Adidas and Converse will play out for her in-demand son. He stresses that Nike will give them the attention they won’t get from the other brands.
An enraged David Falk (Chris Messina), Jordan’s agent, screams at Sonny over the telephone for breaking protocol by meeting Jordan’s parents in person. But the meeting is a success. Soon the Jordans, with Michael, are on their way to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon to hear Nike’s pitch.
Sonny, Phil, and Rob begin planning their presentation. And they work with shoe designer Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) to help put together a prototype shoe to show the Jordans. They nickname it ‘Air Jordan’ after the company’s air sole technology. A lot is on the line. Phil is angry that Sonny wants to spend the entire $250 thousand dollar budget on one player alone. And if the meeting doesn’t go well, Sonny may very well be fired.
It’s hard to believe that a brand as big as Nike was in such a tight spot and made a gamble so big that it could have bankrupted the company back then. But this is based on a true story, with characters that were there.
Air is a fun film that given the subject matter has surprisingly heavy dramatic stakes that make it much more compelling than it would be otherwise. After all, we are talking about a shoe. I would credit that to the screenplay written by Alex Convery, the performance by Matt Damon who carries this picture, and the direction by Ben Affleck.
If you dig a little deeper, you see the origins of a company as iconic and omnipresent today as any other global brand. I would have liked more of an examination of the company’s growth over time and how their blending of athlete, brand, and business ethos made Nike such a trailblazer in athletic wear.
There are hints at something profound. Rob Strasser says ‘a shoe is just a shoe until the athlete steps into it.’ Sunny shares the same statement during his pitch. And late in the film, we catch a glimpse through a brief montage at just what sort of impact Michael Jordan would have on the sports world in the ensuing decades, making Sonny out to be a kind of a fortune-teller.
Chris Tucker plays Howard White, an African American and friend of young Michael’s who played a part in getting Sonny a meeting with the Jordans. Michael’s parents, Delores and James, had a huge impact on their son’s future. And of course, there’s MJ himself. He trails behind the others in conference rooms and parking lots. We don’t see his face nor hear his voice. Ben Affleck has stated that he didn’t want an actor on-screen playing Michael because he thought it would remove the audience from the story and make the movie less believable. I can understand this choice.
Jordan was transcendent. He rose above sports and spoke a language through his natural born gifts that left many awe-struck. Through Nike, Jordan would connect with millions and millions of fans and up-and-coming athletes. His influence on the African-American community and the global community at large can not be overstated. But Air is not so much about the man, or the sport. It’s about a company that had everything to lose, that put it all on the line for one 22-year-old kid from North Carolina.
There are no superheroes or sci-fi villains in Air, but the movie does an impressive job of depicting something of a modern-day legend, an origin story: Jordan and his partnership with Nike. It is a good movie about a great collaboration. You root for these characters and pray that they succeed. It’s inspirational without being too weighty. It glides on air like the legend himself.
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