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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Labor Politics of “Air”

Revisiting a seemingly pro-corporate “brandopic.”

There has been an extremely weird trend in Hollywood movies this year: the rise of the corporate biopic—the “brandopic,” Darren Mooney calls it. (Sadly, they’re not movies starring Marlon Brando.) Tetris is about the race to license the video game Tetris in the sunset years of the Cold War. Flamin’ Hot chronicles the invention of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the truth of which is dubious. BlackBerry charts the rise and fall of the late smartphone brand. Air is about the origin of Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers. These films take “the cinematic language traditionally reserved for important historical figures or true events,” Mooney writes, “and [apply it] to the origin of a consumer product.” It’s been half a century since Star Wars pioneered selling toys based on movies (promoting the movies via the toys and the toys via the movies); it has been decades since “product integration” became endemic in film and television. But this trend still feels like a new level of brazenness. Ads have presented themselves as “short films” for years—the Gillette ad about toxic masculinity was a big one—and now they’ve come for features, too. 

And yet, I loved Air. I didn’t want to—I wanted to find it crass and dumb, roughly equivalent to FIFA’s hagiographic propaganda movie United Passions. But it won me over, over and over again. And the more I thought about it, the less it seemed like a Nike hagiography and the more it seemed, quietly, like something with real teeth. 

It’s 1984, and though Nike is a billion dollar corporate behemoth, its basketball division is flagging. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a habitual gambler, wants to blow the division’s budget on a rookie who was third in the NBA draft—some kid called Michael Jordan. Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother, Deloris, who negotiates on her son’s behalf; Affleck appears as Nike CEO Phil Knight; Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, and an understated Marlon Wayans round out the cast. (Jordan himself is never seen face-on: the camera glimpses his shoulders or the back of his head, like Jesus in Ben-Hur.) To seal the deal, Sonny requests that Peter Moore (Matthew Maher), the designer down in the basement, create the greatest basketball shoe ever conceived. And they’ll put Michael Jordan’s name on it. 

In some ways, of course I loved Air. I have an instinctive affection, endemic to those of us raised on 1990s indie movies, for any Ben Affleck/Matt Damon collab, and Air stars both and is directed by Affleck. It’s got a sharp, tight script and a stellar cast. Without lapsing into pastiche, it feels like a certain type of movie they made in the 1980s: an underdog business comedy, a pseudo-genre ranging from The Secret of My Success to Weekend at Bernie’s. This type of movie can be slyly satirical or nakedly capitalist, but either way, I will love it with pure, uncomplicated love, the love of a kid sitting cross-legged in front of the TV until her eyes go square. An actual ’80s movie would probably have Tom Cruise or Michael J. Fox in a younger, yuppier version of the Damon role. But the core is the same. Air is about landing the big account or losing your job, but the shiny happy face of Reaganomics assures you that the latter is not remotely an option—the same way you know a Western ends with a shootout, or a romcom ends with the leads finally getting together. 

Still: as good of a time as I had watching Air, something twisted in my gut. The movie expects you to root for Nike, one of the biggest, most evil corporations going, as the underdog in their competition with Adidas and Converse. To be clear, Nike is not just generically evil, the way any for-profit business is likely to be. As Naomi Klein outlines in her book No Logo, Nike began producing its sneakers in Asian sweatshops in the early 1970s. Nike sub-contracted to factories, based on the lowest bid and without reviewing the working conditions, initially in Korea and Taiwan, and later in India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. There has never been any reason, any benefit, anything to justify this, but greed. “They’re turning kids into slaves just to make cheaper sneakers / But what’s the real cost?” as Flight of the Conchords once put it, “Cause the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper / Why are we still paying so much for sneakers / When you got little kid slaves making them / What are your overheads?”(Due to public outcry, the company began to make improvements in 2005, allowing human rights groups to inspect their factories.) Simultaneously, as Klein outlines, Nike built its brand around commodifying Black culture, merging the style of working-class Black youth with the endorsements of prominent Black figures from Michael Jordan to Spike Lee. Air elides the former almost entirely and romanticizes the latter. It is, ultimately, about synergy between two brands: Nike sneakers and Michael Jordan, who, Klein writes, secured his place as the branded entity par excellence in an ever more branded post-Reagan world, a superbrand through which sponsors and endorsements flowed. 

Air is, almost inarguably, an advertisement. I idly thought about buying some Air Jordans afterwards, until I came to my senses and decided to continue wearing the old beat-up Nikes I bought second-hand until they finally finish their ongoing falling apart. 

The movie got good reviews, but many critics share that discomfort. Kevin Fox Jr. for Paste calls it “a feel-good movie that relies on viewers identifying with and rooting for a billion-dollar corporation,” adding that Air “is about getting—or keeping—us on the side not just of Nike, but of capitalism as a system, circumventing or ignoring its exploitative nature.” Aisha Harris for NPR panned it as “nothing more than a craven exercise in capitalist exaltation.” Mark Kermode took a more apathetic position, presenting Air not as evil, but merely pointless: he questioned whether trying to license someone’s name to sell a shoe is “enough” for a movie to be about—because, ultimately, so what?

But as much as I wanted to dismiss the movie on that basis, my mind kept returning to one small scene: Rob Strasser (Bateman) tells Sonny that he’d been listening to “that new Bruce Springsteen song” “Born in the U.S.A.,” getting psyched about freedom and so forth, until one day when he really listened to the words: and “Born in the U.S.A.” isn’t about how great America is, not even close. It’s about a guy who comes back from Vietnam and can’t get a job. That moment is the key that unlocks the movie: that we should look beyond the shiny surface, and really listen to the words. And when you do, there’s a built-in skepticism there—emerging to the surface in the last act, but maybe clearest, like a Monet, at a distance. 

Despite myself, I was rooting for Nike, the way you naturally root for underdogs in movies. And then the film shifts, in a way its 1980s progenitors never did. Deloris Jordan accepts Nike’s deal—with one additional term: Michael gets a revenue share of every shoe sold. It’s got his name on it, after all. Sonny is sure Phil Knight will shoot the idea down in a heartbeat. 

“Every once in a while,” Deloris tells Sonny, “someone comes along that’s so extraordinary that it forces those reluctant to part with some of that wealth to do so. Not out of charity, but out of greed. … And even more rare, that person demands to be treated according to their worth because they understand what they are worth.” 

Suddenly the movie isn’t about—or just about—landing the big account. It’s about athletes being compensated for the use of their names and likenesses. It’s about workers’ entitlement to the fruit of their labor. If the stakes were almost absurdly low—who cares about selling sneakers?—they quietly become substantial. It clarifies the choice for Air to be the first film produced under the Artists Equity banner, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s new production company which seeks to share profits with artists.

Nike pays Michael Jordan what he deserves for every shoe with his name on it. Not out of charity, but out of greed. Because they stand to make truly grotesque amounts of money, even if they shave a bit off the top for Michael. The epilogue tells us that Phil Knight has donated $2 billion to charity. “Born in the U.S.A.” is playing, and you’re forced to question what feels like a happy ending. We’ve just been told that Air Jordan generates $4 billion sales for Nike annually. Out of context, how much Knight donates to charity sounds like a compliment. In context, it sounds damning. (If you decide to scratch the surface when you get home, it gets worse: Knight once rescinded a donation to the University of Oregon because they joined the Worker Rights Consortium. Charity, too, can be driven by greed.) 

Because Michael is such an extraordinary talent, with such a shrewd and determined woman in his corner, he’s in a position to demand what he’s worth. But the movie is littered with people who don’t get the compensation they deserve. Pete designs the shoe, names it, creates the iconic silhouette—which appears on “every Air Jordan product”—but Pete is a guy in the basement with a speech impediment who took up skateboarding in middle age and spends his whole life thinking about basketball shoes. He doesn’t have Michael Jordan’s leverage. The shoe he created makes $4 billion a year, and Pete cashes his salary at the end of the month. The woman who designed the Nike swoosh is less lucky: Phil Knight bought the design from her for 25 bucks. Eighty percent of Nike’s shoes are made in South Korea and Taiwan, Strasser says in the “Born in the U.S.A.” scene, and rest assured that they’re not getting a cut of the profits of every shoe they sew together. 

“Nowhere to run,” as Springsteen sings, “Ain’t got nowhere to go.” Nike pays Jordan what he deserves out of greed. But so few are extraordinary enough that Nike wouldn’t make more money by screwing them over than giving them their due. And when it comes to shoe profits, $2 billion in charity is a drop in the ocean.

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