‘Trending now’ is a contemporaneous phrase most people recognize from social media. A certain issue or news story is ‘trending now’ on Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok, or Instagram. But trends themselves are as old as civilization. The world of film and television is certainly not exempt.
A talking picture? Never. Until it worked and everyone was doing it. Sword and sandals spectacles in the 50s and 60s. Freddy Kruger owes his garish sweater to Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask, who in turn is the scion of Michael Myers ghost-face. After Die Hard was released and did fantastically well, other producers rushed to make “Die Hard on a boat” (Under Siege) or “Die Hard on a plane” (Air Force One). After the success of The Blair Witch Project, so-called ‘found footage’ films were all the rage for 5-10 years.
Biopics or movies about a person’s life are not trendy in and of themselves. They’ve been produced since the onset of motion pictures, but what’s recently developed as a trend is a subset of the biopic: this is what I would call the product movie.
I think it may have started with Joy, the movie about the inventor of a popular item on a home buying television program—some kind of highly utilitarian mop. More recently, there was Ford v Ferrari. The current film under review, Air, is about a shoe—Air Jordan sneakers to be specific and the wooing of Michael Jordan to accept an endorsement deal with Nike.
Of course, these movies also follow the people who invented the products, but it’s a subtle shift away from focusing the film on a single person and more toward detailing how said person or persons brought a consumer item to life.
In The Founder, Michael Keaton starred as Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s and made fast food part of the culture, but if the movie was made today it might be more about how the Big Mac was conjured. The Social Network was about Mark Zuckerberg’s journey in creating and growing Facebook. Now studios might be less interested in him and more keen on how the ‘like’ button was engineered.
Air is a riff on my supposing, but it’s not as dry as I’m making it out to be. You can’t have a feature film about a shoe without interesting characters to buoy it. As one wit says in Air, “A shoe is just a shoe until someone unique steps into it.” This movie would be extremely drab if it was merely about the design of a sneaker and not the people who put their lives into it.
Yet in Air we don’t get much into the interior lives of these personalities. There are glimpses of them, entertaining ones to be sure, but the brisk pace of the film keeps us away from anything more than the surface. Indeed, Nike CEO Phil Knight (played by Ben Affleck), possibly the most interesting person in the movie (because he invented the running shoe and gave birth to the idea of jogging for health), is kept at the margins and made to appear like an idiosyncratic goofball instead of a legendary innovator and business founder.
Air was certainly not meant to be a Knight biopic, but we never get inside anyone else’s life deeply, either. In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film feel less like an introduction of compelling characters and more like a scripted stockholders meeting.
After that, however, the film finds its feet (shoes) and pulls us in, largely because of the charisma of Matt Damon’s character, the man who was chiefly responsible for wooing Michael Jordan to Nike and getting the shoe to match his soon-to-be G.O.A.T foot.
If anyone is the centerpiece of the movie, it’s Damon’s character, but where the film missteps (gosh, all these foot puns) is, ironically, also in the charisma department. Since a movie about the creation of a shoe would be boring, the writers and producers of Air had to make the characters so off beat, kooky and witty that it beggared belief. The dialogue of most of these corporate middle-men is, clipped, debonair, often spoken without pause and, simply put, too perfect to make me believe this accurately reflected anything. I don’t want boring, but at the same time I don’t want patronizing.
Another sleight of hand (foot, sorry) Air uses is the underdog trope. In 1984, so the movie purports, Nike was a distant third in the shoe business –especially in basketball—to Converse and Adidas. Forget that Nike was already a billion dollar company. Times were hard, and it was left to a collection of beer-gutted salesmen (Damon), Buddhist-quoting CEOs (Affleck), def-jam styling PR men (Chris Tucker) and basement-dwelling, engineer weirdos (Matthew Maher) to pull off the biggest shoe coup in history. It was as if the Bad News Bears grew up without losing their quirkiness and went corporate. The shoe may have sold like gangbusters, but this approach, again, beggared belief.
One thing not in doubt is the success Air Jordan sneakers were to become. Air is a nice look at the sausage making of endorsement deals, but there was never any chance Michael Jordan wouldn’t sign with Nike and fill the world’s most popular shoe, because, well, take a look around. We all know the Jordan story and the popularity of the shoe. So I found it difficult for Air to create suspense, which, after all, is one of storytelling’s chief missions. Some may say this movie is about the journey and not the destination, but when you know what the destination is the journey has to be so compelling you want to forget you’re ahead of the narrative.
Air is also part of another trend, the nostalgia trend, the take us back to the 80s trend. Stranger Things. IT. Air even, I’m not sure knowingly, recruited Jason Bateman to play a supporting role in the film. Batemen being one of the biggest 1980s TV stars with stints on Silver Spoons and The Hogan Family. There was so much 80s music in Air, I thought for sure Casey Kasem would interrupt to present the Top 40 Countdown.
In spite of everything I have said, Air will be a successful movie. The duo of Damon and Affleck always seem to do well together, and the supporting cast knocks it out of the park (court; no more pun apologies).
Air is breezy and fun, though it seems unaware of itself by the conclusion. There are several epigraphs detailing how much money Nike and Michael Jordan made as a result of the partnership, but I thought—at least what Hollywood tells me in movies like The Big Short— that corporate greed is irredeemably sinful.
Usually movie studios, themselves massive corporations which finance their films through big banks, want to tell us how much conglomerates are ripping us off. But Air seems to celebrate the idea that a kid who mows lawns for weeks on end will fork it all over to have a pair of over-priced sneakers so they can “be like Mike.”
I don’t begrudge anyone making an honest living, even a fat cat living, but you can’t have it both ways. Well, I guess you can because Hollywood so frequently does.
I’m only left wondering which product will get its day on the big screen next. Post It notes? Yoga pants and the rise of Lululemon? If you can make a movie about a shoe and attract A-listers, you can make a movie about almost anything. Trends. Gotta love ‘em.
BLAST RATING: 2.5 out of 4 stars