Like so many different forms of art, movies invite viewers to contemplate the perspectives and experiences of those very different from them. Through this contemplation, this wrestling with intent and perspective, art illuminates the human condition, and perhaps allows an aficionado to grow and develop as a person. Movies are also a great way to spend a couple hours with a complete asshole and be delighted, instead of having it ruin your day.
Air, the new film about the creation of Nike’s Air Jordan line of sneakers, features one of the best movie assholes you’re likely to see this year. It’s a sports business movie, the perfect forum for showcasing assholes, and it’ll be hard to top Chris Messina’s performance as the volatile agent David Falk.
Falk is the real-life sports agent who represented Michael Jordan at the start of his career, when he was a promising but unproven player for University of North Carolina’s basketball team and about to join the Chicago Bulls. The real David Falk has a storied career that may or may not have involved him being a complete prick, but the David Falk in Air is an absolutely delightful jerk who lights up the screen whenever he shows up to swear into a telephone.
As Falk, Chris Messina (whom viewers may know from Birds of Prey or Sharp Objects) is Air’s de facto antagonist, a brick wall for the movie’s hero, Nike talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) to throw himself against. Sonny is trying to land Jordan as a sponsor for the 1984 version of Nike, which is far from the sports-sneaker behemoth it is today. Air portrays Vaccaro as an “athletes are magical” true believer stuck in a marketing department full of people just trying to keep the company in the black. It follows him as he tries to convince everyone to embrace the radical-in-1984 idea of putting the company’s entire weight behind one athlete, and designing a shoe that can be branded with his name.
One person Air does not feature is Jordan himself. Vaccaro instead has to contend with people who represent Jordan, like Falk and, later, Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis). This is Air’s most divisive aspect, as the wheeling and dealing between Vaccaro, Falk, and others centers around the idea of labor, and how much that labor is worth to the worker and the corporation eager to exploit it. A cursory viewing of Air would see the film as corporate propaganda, a hagiography of wealthy marketers and executives securing their legacies off the back of the most legendary basketball player in the history of the game. Or, arguably, it could be seen as a played-out paean to guys like Vaccaro (movies like this almost exclusively celebrate guys) who go with their gut and are met with unprecedented success, in spite of all the doubters around them who rightly say they’re being reckless.
But Air might be about something more complicated than that. For all Falk’s bluster in representing Jordan — and truly, Messina does a fantastic job of blustering, wearing the phones he shouts into about as well as his impeccably tailored suits — he doesn’t know what he has in his client. To Falk, and nearly every other character in Air apart from Sonny Vaccaro and Deloris Jordan, Michael Jordan is just a paycheck, numbers on a balance sheet that may or may not work out for them. That uncertainty pervades Air, offering up a bit of on-the-nose irony that director Ben Affleck makes a meal of. At every moment, he plays up the irony of the audience knowing his characters are debating the viability and profitability of the most famous basketball player alive.
While all these characters are debating what athletes should be paid for their labor, Air breezily juxtaposes its conflicts against the era’s massive commercial successes. Pop hits from Bonnie Tyler and Run-DMC constantly filter through the soundtrack. Brand names pepper the screen, and era-appropriate commercials are constantly sampled. First-time screenwriter Alex Convery presents a vision of corporate-driven monoculture at the height of its last great era, just as it was about to discover one of its final figureheads. Air is a movie about how hard it is to make a hit anything, and an elegiac tune for a present-day pop-culture landscape where nothing is ever likely to land as hard as the 1980s’ major touchstones again.
What makes this movie so striking is the way every character in Air who isn’t named “Jordan” is just guessing. David Falk is an asshole because he’s decided that the only way to get results is to treat every client as an excuse to shake people down for money, so he can increase his personal clout and wealth. While Sonny Vaccaro eventually wins the day, he spends much of Air’s run time as an inveterate gambler in Jerry Maguire mode, forever a day away from washing out, neglecting his health and personal life to chase hunches that, he’s repeatedly told, have never panned out.
For 112 minutes, white men with money are depicted spending much of their time convincing themselves and others that they can spot where the culture is going, when it’s clear they can’t, because their primary mandate is safeguarding their wealth. In his least sympathetic moment, Vaccaro squirms at Deloris’ confident negotiations to get Michael part of the gross sales on the shoes bearing his name. He knows that just isn’t how things are done. In the sneaker business of the era, athletes are paid a licensing fee for their endorsement, and the profits are for the company — which the execs argue is the true source of value.
Vaccaro is blindly loyal to the precedent of this inequitable structure, and he balks at the thought of upending it — even telling Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck himself) that he lost the Jordan deal. Vaccaro is surprised when Knight takes Deloris’ condition seriously, and in a moment of fourth-wall-breaking irony, Knight later muses that he may have set a precedent that upends the industry.
Through impassioned arguments and off-the-cuff speeches, Air shows the process by which corporations graft themselves onto culture, as genuine faith and magic collide with the machinery of commerce, and the exploitation by which it thrives. It’s a meat grinder built primarily to benefit men like David Falk and Phil Knight, and any windfall gained by the young Michael Jordans of the world is secondary at best. Men with money arm themselves with bluster and confidence as they fumble in the dark, trying to hitch their wagons to someone that does something that makes the people of the world feel like they believe in something again.
Air ultimately condemns Falk — at least as much as it’s capable of condemning anyone — by making the character almost wholly extraneous to the history the film adapts. It’s Sonny Vaccaro and Deloris Jordan, the movie’s true believers, who move the needle and marry Nike’s corporate success to Michael Jordan’s incredible career. As a tremendous asshole, Falk makes for a great scapegoat, but he’s also an honest asshole; Deloris is the only character in the film who isn’t trying to exploit Michael. Ultimately, they’re all assholes whose careers depend on people not knowing what they’re worth.
Air is playing in theaters now.