- Ben Afleck
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 51 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.
In director Ben Afleck’s 5th film the race is a heated one, but it is not spiritual, as in the S. Paul quote, but a commercial race between three sneaker shoe companies—Converse, Adidas, and Nike. And our sprinter is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the Nike recruiting expert. Nike is 3rd in the competition for outfitting the feet of America’s youth. Indeed, his basketball section of Nike is so neglected that there is the possibility of it being shut down. Thus, this is typical of sports movies in that it is an underdog story, but utterly unique in that it is not the rags to riches story of a talented athlete, but the story of the creation of a shoe, one that became iconic for America’s youth—the Air Jordan that became so coveted-sneaker that some would rob and even kill for it. One might think that a film about business dealings would be dull and boring, but the direction, the marvelous actors, and the script by Alex Convery filled with snappy dialogue draws us in and creates suspense, even though the outcome is known.
Afleck sets the scene in his prologue, a montage crammed with clips of newsreels, music videos, and commercials of 1984—shots of Pres. Reagan, Princess Diana, Hulk Hogan, Cabbage Patch Kids, the old lady exclaiming “Where’s the Beef?”, the Rubik Cube, and much more. We learn that in the sports show business Converse has the lion’s share of sports shoes’ sales, followed by Adidas, and Nike well under 20% of the market. Vaccaro spends hours popping in and out of his VCR cassette tapes of high school and college basketball games in the hope of spotting the next hot player who will shine in the NBA. (Another joy of this film is its careful display of technology of that bygone era—not just the cars and clothes, but the dial telephones, the pager Vaccaro wears on his bet, corner telephone booths, the clunky computer monitors, still using cathode ray tubes on every desk.) When he watches young Michael Jordan from North Carolina, a rookie, he is seized with a vision that he passionately defends against a host of fellow Nike colleagues who think he’s gone crazy.
Compared to their rivals, the budget that Vaccaro has to work with is puny. There is no way they can draw in four star players such as Converse is able to attract. So, turning a weakness into an asset—though he keeps begging for more funds—why not spend everything on one star, Michael Jordan, the greatest player of his generation, rather than dividing their allotted $250,000 among four lesser players? Make the show about this player and no one else! At first his colleagues– Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), VP of Marketing; former basketball player Howard White (Chris Tucker), and George Raveling (Marlon Wayans)—reject the idea, pointing out that that would be putting all their eggs into one basket. Too risky. Why a knee injury could derail his career, leaving them with no major endorser.
The Jordan’s feisty agent David Falk (Chris Messina) is even more an obstacle. To him it will b either the leader Converse or its rival Adidas that will be given the prize, not the puny little Nike. When Vaccaro suggests that he talk with the Jordans, Falk goes ballistic, seeing that as a threat to his role of agent. The banter back and forth between the two is fast and furious, rising to a hilarious level after Vaccaro does indeed break the rules and flies to North Carolina to talk with the parents.
The North Carolina sequence is when we finally get to see Viola Davis as the magisterial Deloris Jordan. Arriving unannounced, Vaccaro first meets Michael’s father, James R. Jordan Sr. (Julius Tennon) who is working on the engine of his car. Surprised that the visitor has come without notifying them, he directs Vaccaro to Deloris. He continues working on the car. Clearly it is Deloris who handles the family’s business affairs. She chides her visitor for his presumptuous intrusion but listens to his pitch. He predicts what the other companies will offer, asking that if he is right for her to listen to Nike’s offer, one that is centered on just one player endorsement, her son, whom he calls “a great player” who will dominate the game. His inclusion of family values obviously appeals to the mother who is intent on extracting from whatever company she closes with the full worth of her son’s great talent. There will be no ripping off by white men of this black boy, as was the case in the music and recording field.
Back at Nike HQ in Oregon everyone is upset with Vaccaro’s brash trip. The one whom he has to win over is Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight (Ben Afleck). The two have been friends throughout the history of the company, as well as employer-employe. Knight often goes about the office barefoot and likes Douglas McArthur’s famous quote, “You are remembered for the rules you break.” It is exactly the latter that Vaccaro has done. He also has taken to heart Nike’s 10 principles that are posted on the wall. Among them are “Our business is change,” “We’re on offense, all the time,” and “If we do the right things, we’ll make money damn near automatic.” When Knight at last greenlights Vaccaro’s daring plan Nike’s creative director Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) enters the picture. The sequence of the designing and producing the actual shoe and debating its colors is full of drama and humor. And they decide to continue to “break the rules” by using more red than the NBA allows, deciding it will be worth the cost of paying a $5000 fine. Think of all the publicity. I think it was at this time that Strasser says, “a shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.”
The meetings of the Jordan’s with the Converse and Adidas pitchmen are fun to watch, and when the family come to Oregon, Knight and Vaccaro have carefully orchestrated the presentation, even to having Knight arrive late because of other meetings, but showing how important this one is. They unveil their plan to call the new show Air Jordan, unveiling the prototype like it was a work of art—which it was.
For days after the Jordan meeting everyone at Nike is on pins and needles awaiting word of what the Jordans decide. When she does call Vaccaro to inform him that Michael will sign with Nike, the pitchman’s spirit soars as high as the clouds. But her next words bring that spirit down like a stone. She is asking that Michael be given a percentage of every shoe sold. For once finding it hard to come up with words, Vaccaro tells her that just is not done. He argues on, but Deloris holds firm, taking their own slogan and saying,” A shoe is just a shoe until Michael steps in it.” She knows what her son is worth and will accept nothing less.
Even though we see court action only in the brief snippets of game tapes, this is one of the most exciting sports films I have been privileged to have seen. We also see very little of Michael Jordan himself, the stand-in actor at the Nike meeting being given almost no lines when Vaccaro is finally allowed to greet him. Oddly, this is not a loss because the film is really about the shoe and two strong personalities, Sonny Vaccaro and Deloris Jordan, plus the complex business maneuvers and the design of the Air Jordan. We are told at the end that Nike has raked in an astronomical amount of money from the sales of various editions of the shoes. Also, that Deloris changed forever the way sports celebrities make deals, giving them a fairer portion of the revenue that their name and reputation bring in. Sonny himself would later go on and play a crucial role in making the N.C.A.A. compensate college athletes for the commercial use of their image.
The ensemble cast is terrific in bringing passion and humor to their scenes, with Viola Davis especially a standout as the strong mother wise to the way of business and imbued with the belief in her son’s worth that she will do business only on her own terms. No wonder Michael Jordan has remained so close to his mother and given her credit for his values and success.
Thus far this is the feel-good movie of the year for me.
This review will be in the May issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.