Film review: “Air” – of shoes, capitalism and fetishes (sort of)

Saw the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon/Viola Davis film “Air” today. It tells a version of the story of how, in 1984, the footwear company Nike signed then-rookie basketball player Michael Jordan and made a tonne of money (actually, probably several hundred tonnes of money) by creating a shoe that would get everyone buyin’.

Short version -the film is okay – at least as good as you expect it will be, and at various points it WANTS to be more astute and incisive than it is, but if you don’t try to engage your critical faculties too much, it’s okay.

It hinges on the relationship/chemistry (non-romantic) between Matt Damon’s character (a real-life guy called Sonny Vacarro) and Viola Davis (playing Michael Jordan’s canny and tough mother). When those two are on the screen together, either face-to-face or during a climatic phone call, then the film comes alive, above and beyond the entirely competent scenes with Damon and (a favourite of mine) Jason Bateman, or Ben Affleck. There’s some good turns, elsewhere, but there’s flab and overuse of 1980s nostalgia references too.

And it is the Damon-Davis scenes that the film goes for a three-pointer but kinda sorta bounces off the rim. It unproblematically holds up this idea that the Air Jordan is somehow a symbol of a wider emancipation. There are obvious real world reasons for this (how else ya gonna get the needed co-operation of the principals, and a studio isn’t gonna finance something that explains how fetishes work to reinforce “useful” belief systems and superstitions that make the rich richer). They’re not gonna pull back the curtain and explain how the game is constructed, and how it is, well, rigged.

About fetish – as I was just saying to someone, it’s not a kink thing. In anthropological terms, a fetish is an object we turn into a god – with magical powers (of punishment, redemption, reward, whatever) and then – and this is the crucial bit – forget that we created.

And you’re left wanting to know where (spoilers) the crucial idea of demanding a percentage of every shoe sold with Jordan’s name on came from. The film kind of implies it was the (deliciously Gordon-Gekko-esque) agent who came up with. Or was it Jordan’s mother? Had this been attempted before? Was this a tenet of black economic self-empowerment that was – pardon the pun – ‘in the air’. Would it have killed the film-makers to have been clearer on that?

Never mind, as “sports merchandisers as heroes” films go, it is up there with Jerry Maguire. I am not sure Howard Zinn – who babysat Matt Damon, 50 years ago, would entirely approve. In 1997 Damon and Affleck managed to sneak some Noam Chomsky references into “Good Will Hunting.” There’s no Noam here, and there could (should) have been. Oh well.

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