‘Air’ reflects a cultural fascination with building a personal brand 

By Kathryn McDonald 

Today we live in a culture that is fascinated with the idea of building personal brands. Individuals spend their time and money buying into aesthetics and products that they feel reflect who they are or who they want to become. Our culture’s preoccupation with building a personal brand is reflected in director Ben Affleck’s most recent film “Air” starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, and Viola Davis. 

In the world of sports, athleisure companies like Nike, Adidas and Converse have built a longstanding reputation with their customers. In fact, it’s often the brand that people want to attach their name to more than the clothes, shoes or sports equipment. The idea of becoming a brand is commonplace, but this movie is a picture of what it meant for one person to do that while becoming the face of American basketball. 

The movie tells the story of Sonny Vacarro, played by Matt Damon, working for Nike’s basketball division, and his vision to change the way branding and marketing is approached by the company. His job description is vague, but his mission is simple: figure out a way to make Nike an attractive company for basketball players.

Instead of searching for a player to wear Nike’s shoes, the team at Nike looks for a player who can “become” their next shoe. The idea is to create a shoe that is representative of the next basketball legend – a shoe that will sell itself. 

Sonny’s proposal is a risky business deal where Nike bets the whole basketball budget on hiring one player to represent their shoes. His coworkers are incredulous and his boss is irate that he would take such unprecedented risks, but the story wraps up with a happily-ever-after ending and tributes to the individuals who made the original Air Jordan shoes possible. 

The movie is based on real-life events, so apart from some dramatization, the story remains true to life. It is impressive to see tastefully interwoven personal drama at different points throughout the film, but the notoriety that surrounds Nike and Michael Jordan do make it feel as though the movie has a predictable ending (which isn’t necessarily a negative). 

Ben Affleck does a great job embodying the energy of his character, Phil Knight, the founder and longtime CEO of Nike. 

Two interesting choices made in this movie really stand out to me. The first is the fact that the actor who plays Michael Jordan never shows his face. I appreciate this knowing that it could be really disappointing to see someone cast for this iconic role and then not fully embody their character. This really helps maintain the face of the legend and icon that Micahel Jordan is. 

The second unique component of the film is the fact that Rob Strasser’s 10 business principles that are at the core of Nike serve as a “script” for the movie. It is interesting to see the movie embody the ideals of the founder of the company who had the vision to see Nike through to the giant corporation that it now is. 

One of the best things about this movie is that it has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than just sports fans. The focus is never purely on basketball. It is a classic American underdog story. It is a business drama, a story of camaraderie and has its share of humor. I also appreciated that while the movie does focus on major brands and sports companies, it does not feel like a two-hour advertisement for their products.

Viola Davis and Matt Damon elevate this movie with their convincing and passionate performances. 

It is necessary to mention that despite the absorbing plot and well-played scenes, I am pretty disappointed at the crass, vulgar and often unnecessary language and remarks that earn this film its R rating. This film could have easily been PG-13 or even PG if screenwriters and directors had chosen to limit profanity. That seems pretty unacceptable to me. 

I think the real classic here is the shoe and not the movie, and I expect to see mixed reviews that reflect that reality. It’s a neat story with impressive actors, a decent script and an inspirational message, but it still feels overshadowed by the same story that it is telling.  It should be interesting enough for fans and movie buffs because the story is interesting, but the film feels forgettable. 

“Air” is playing now in theaters

Kathryn McDonald is a senior Psychology major and writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of Cedars. You can probably catch her writing a letter to a friend in the library or drinking coffee from her favorite mug. When she is not at her desk studying, she is probably on her phone catching up with friends or reading her favorite volumes of American poetry.

Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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