Well you know that you have something solid, when your immediate thought is, “This is the movie I will be comparing everything else to for the rest of the year”. It’s already April and we have a contender for the best film of 2023. It stars Matt Damon and was directed by Ben Affleck, yea, those guys. They did not write the movie but their presence certainly gives it the vibe of their collaboration from twenty-five years ago. This is a drama, set in 1984 and it focuses on the greatest basketball player of all time with him being a practically invisible character for the story. The plot focuses on a business deal and that hardly sounds like the subject that would make a movie compelling. Also, we know the outcome before the film even starts. So how does this end up working?
First of all, you have intrigue that most of us were unaware of. Getting Michael Jordon to commit to a shoe company that had negligible impact on basketball in the time was an arduous task. The competitors were better prepared and financially able to fulfill the athletes wishes, his agent was aggressively dismissive of Nike’s attempt to set up a meeting, and Michaels parents were naturally suspicious of everyone as he is making the leap to the pros. Phil Knight to founder of Nike was a successful shoe innovator but his athletic apparel di not have any cache with the basketball community at the time. What Nike did have was Sonny Vaccaro, a basketball scout for talent in the endorsement industry, who had a deeper understanding of the game than his rivals, and a better instinct about Jordan than anybody outside of his family.
Damon plays Sonny as a driven gambler with good instincts and a dogged personality. He is also not an athlete or user of Nike products. He is a middle aged guy working in a rapidly changing environment, but he is never put off by the obstacles in front of him. Damon gives him the conflicting auras of passion and hopelessness. Fortunately, he is also better able to articulate his vision than any one else. There are two great spots where he has to be persuasive, primarily on the spot. In a sequence where Sonny talks with his friend Basketball coach George Raveling, he learns that Martin Luther King Jr. extemporized the second half of the “I have a Dream Speech”, and learned the lessons that you have to read the audience. When we get to the pitch that he makes to the Jordans, he does basically what King did, listen to his audience and speak to their inspirations and aspirations.
Of course the characters in the film have to be interesting to hold our attention. Vaccaro is a gas, flippantly joking about Nike’s dismal reputation in the basketball field, while simultaneously projecting the conviction of his visions. Jason Bateman plays Rob Strasser, the marketing executive at Nike who wants Vaccaro to succeed but doubts his gambler’s instincts. His realization that Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is not quite the world affirming anthem he thought it was is very amusing. The two of them are great exchanging criticism, life lessons and gallows humor. Affleck plays The founder, Phil Knight, who has delusions of eastern insight, moderating his business sense. Chris Tucker is another executive with a story to tell and a personality to match Sonny when it comes to speaking enthusiastically. Once again, Viola Davis shows off her thespian chops as the gracious but steel minded mother of Michael Jordon. The phone call she has with Sonny, trying to close the deal with a set of unprecedented demands, is another standout sequence in the film.
Those of us who remember those days will recognize the production design and soundtrack of the era. There is great fidelity to the times and the sense of the world. The story is a salute to the vibrancy of an entrepreneurial attitude and the power of capitalism, combined with the right vision and direction. Everting ultimately depended on Vaccaro being right about Jordon, and we know how that turned out. This movie almost does the same thing, we’ll see how it all comes out eventually.