Opinion: Why is Michael Jordan Really Missing from Air?

April 5, 2023
In a depressing way, Ben Affleck has nailed the market for films which exploit the stories of fabled heroes and are repackaged into biopics.

Such is the story of Air, Affleck’s latest film about the creation of the now famous sneaker known as the Air Jordan, which heralds a new form of nostalgia towards the booming 1980s cultural and economic miracle.

The era saw large scale profits and the rise of huge incomes as well as the deregulation of the market, championed by America’s Ronald Raegan and the UK’s Margaret Thatcher.

This context provides the backdrop for understanding why Jordan is missing from Air – because the film is a promotion of capitalism and not athleticism.

Matt Damon plays Sonny, an entrepreneurial man who is savvy with money and is poached by Phil (Ben Affleck) to do something about Nike’s floundering shoe business. Damon has an idea to invest entirely in Michael Jordan – who is a recruit from the College of North Carolina as draft pick number three – rather than dispersing the budget across four players. Phil is doubtful that Sonny’s idea is profitable and would rather not risk his position as CEO of the recently public-listed Nike.

Affleck’s film self-consciously erases Jordan from the narrative; he either appears in shadows, or with his back turned or in medium closeups from behind and is never seen speaking. This is the most contentious element of the film, because Jordan deserves to be at the centre of the narrative but is relegated to the sidelines. The most glaring reason for this is that the film itself wholly promotes capitalism and thus the commerce generated by Jordan’s image is the most important element of the shoe’s narrative.

The film promotes capitalism by and large, with its glossy 1980s soundtrack and nostalgic yearning for the era. It’s no surprise Jordan is the only person missing, (although his mum Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) and dad, James Jordan (Julius Tennon) feature prominently), given that the film is entirely devoted to the exploitation of Jordan’s image and athleticism.

Air follows in the footsteps of a slew of films slated for release this year including Blackberry, about the popular and innovative mobile phone, and Tetris about the hit arcade game.

Air is embroiled in nostalgia for the unfettered capitalism which existed in the 1980s, when reaganomics ruled and markets were booming. At this time, the notion of income tax cuts, which drove more money into the pockets of the rich, were believed to, in turn, trickle down to the poorest. If this film is representative of a yearning for a time past, where does this situate the current climate of cinema? Nostalgia tends to emanate in a period of bust, when other eras are venerated, and perhaps Air perfectly represents this malaise.

Affleck relies on animated phone calls to create the sense of urgency as Sonny attempts to dissuade the deals of Adidas and Puma from attracting Jordan and his agent David (Chris Messina). This only further emphasises the film’s focus purely on the art of the deal surrounding the now infamous Air Jordan shoe. At the expense of a plot twist or suspense, the absence of Jordan makes the film less entertaining. In fact, some of the best scenes are the pre-recorded VHS tapes Sonny watches in his lounge room as Jordan scores a match winning shot in his college final.

Capitalism and nostalgia are closely intertwined, which can explain a slogan like Make America Great Again for Donald Trump’s 2016 election. The deindustrialisation of American economics and most of the Western world, left the most disenfranchised people yearning for a past when blue-collar jobs were abundant and manufactured goods were cheaper. Affleck’s film also gleams over the exploitative nature of manufacturing shoes and the audience is never privy to the mass machinations of one of the Air Jordan shoes. Nike is a company which thrives off exploiting sweat shops in the Global South and this is never touched on. The closest we get is a lab downstairs in the main office where Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) elaborately designs Jordan’s customised shoes.

Affleck’s film ignores the exploitative nature of capitalism, including the sweat shops where Nike shoes are made, to produce a film which is a nostalgic cry for the past. Jordan’s absence further reinforces the sense that Air is purely interested in the Air Jordan’s commercial relevancy, which does a disservice to Jordan’s monumental athletic achievements. It’s clear that culturally, Hollywood is more inclined to look backwards rather than into the future, as the slew of other origin story films about technological items suggests.