Hollywood rarely flexes its soft power muscles these days.
Studios once extolled the glories of the Founding Fathers, rallied the troops during times of war and otherwise exported tales of American exceptionalism.
Now, if a studio has a message to send, it’s often pointing out the country’s flaws, be it slavery’s enduring stain (“Till”), gender discrimination (“She Said”) or corporate greed (“The Wolf of Wall Street”).
And that product gets shipped around the globe.
It’s why “Air” feels like a movie made during a different era.
The true story behind the Air Jordan sneaker that revolutionized sports marketing comes from a curious source – progressive superstars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
The Boston buddies crashed Hollywood with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” and their friendship remains intact. Their latest collaboration, following the 2021 box office dud “The Last Duel,” recalls Nike attempt to lure rookie Michael Jordan into its endorsement arms, and the precarious negotiations that sealed the deal.
“Air” tracks how a Nike executive named Sonny Vaccaro (Damon) convinced Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis) to weigh the company’s pitch over similar pleas from Converse and Adidas. The latter were the go-to sneakers for ‘80s era basketball giants, and Damon’s character needed to change that thinking or suffer the consequences.
He could lose both his job and professional clout if his sales pitch falls flat. His hunch tells him it’s the right move, though, and he can’t ignore his gut. What’s comical is how Damon gained weight for the role, inflating said gut to make him far less athletic than the stars he pursues.
Sonny turns to Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) for help. He needs cash to dangle in front of Team Jordan, but the guru-like Knight isn’t initially sold on the pitch.
We all know what happened next. The Air Jordan sneaker became a sensation that endures even today, and Jordan became the greatest basketball player of his generation — if not of all time.
“Air” delivers nostalgia, colorful characters, and a can’t-miss narrative based on actual events. That’s not the only story in play.
The drama is a love letter to American capitalism, acknowledging the risks many face when they dream big. Courage, faith, and grit can yield substantial results, and you don’t need a killer jump shot to make it happen.
Sonny is the story’s hero, alongside co-conspirators played by Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman. They know Sonny is attempting a Hail Mary pass, to mix sports metaphors, but they’re betting everything they have that he just might score a touchdown.
There’s a moment late in the film where most moviegoers will expect a woke detour. Mrs. Jordan is mulling the Nike offer, and she knows her son’s value off and on the court.
Here comes ‘The Lecture™’, the moment when a Hollywood film uncorks a monologue about the racial inequities in play, the country’s tragic past, and the imbalances within the western financial scene.
Instead, Davis’ character reminds Sonny of her son’s worth, and skill, and why signing him will be a win-win scenario.
No lecture. No attempt to guilt Sonny into a deal via racial discrimination. It’s all about merit and getting paid what you’re due.
Alex Convery’s screenplay never wags its finger at Nike, corporate greed, or capitalism’s inevitable inequities. Instead, it praises ingenuity, guile, and perseverance. Sonny works ‘round the clock to seal the deal, as do several colleagues.
And, when the chips are down, they turn to Nike’s sneaker guru (Matt Maher) to turn their vision into reality.
Not every capitalist sinks the winning shot, of course. Many dreamers watch their hopes dashed by reality. Others fail and fail again before crafting their success story.
One wrong word from Mama Jordan, and we’d be wearing Michael Jordan kicks from Adidas today.
The system rewards bold and courageous souls who believe in their ability to defy the odds. The latter is personified on-screen by Chris Messina, stealing the film as Jordan’s cranky agent.
“Air” doesn’t diminish the free market. It celebrates it without question or hand wringing. The film is generating mostly raves from professional critics, too, save a nasty swipe from The New Yorker due to its fiscal framing.
This movie, in short, kneels at the altar of high capitalism.
It’s important to remember how left of center the film’s stars remain. Damon famously played, and mercilessly mocked, future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during the height of the 2018 confirmation hearings.
Affleck once told Playboy Magazine he’s uncomfortable watching Republican actors.
When I watch a guy I know is a big Republican, part of me thinks, I probably wouldn’t like this person if I met him, or we would have different opinions. That s*** fogs the mind when you should be paying attention and be swept into the illusion.
It’s not the first time the Affleck-Damon pairing took a pragmatic approach to their art. The duo collaborated on Project Greenlight, a docuseries meant to foster young filmmakers.
The show, which ran for four seasons and is being rebooted by actress/producer Issa Rae, followed indie filmmakers attempting to make a movie. Affleck and Damon co-produced the show, and their collective star wattage powered it above and beyond your average docuseries.
They knew better than anyone what it takes to beat the Hollywood odds, and they wanted to share those lessons with others.
The series didn’t launch any new superstars, but several of the directors in question enjoyed modest careers following their show appearance. It likely inspired more than a few wannabe directors watching at home to give filmmaking a try.
Chances are someone will see “Air,” note how the main characters gambled on their guts … and won. That’s soft power in real time, an American sentiment worth sharing both here and across the globe.
Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, movie critic and editor of HollywoodInToto.com. He previously served as associate editor with Breitbart News’ Big Hollywood. Follow him at @HollywoodInToto.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.