Changing Cinema: A breath of fresh ‘Air’ for the biopic genre

(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

When I first watched the trailer for “Air,” a biopic directed by Ben Affleck about the monumental Nike shoe deal with Michael Jordan, I scrambled to see who they casted as Jordan himself. I operated under the belief that Chris Tucker would play Jordan, as he was the only actor in the main cast that somewhat resembled the NBA superstar. After a conversation with my friend about the film, along with a quick IMDb search, I found out that Jordan’s character was not shown in the film at all. 

With the exception of a few throwaway lines and archival footage, Jordan’s likeness was entirely omitted from a story that would not exist without him. I was surprised to say the least; although biopics about iconic figures can be told from varying perspectives, such as telling the story of Serena and Venus Williams through their father in “King Richard,” the idea of focusing on an individual through the lens of people that believed in them is both innovative and fascinating. “Air” is therefore a breath of fresh air for the biopic genre, showing Hollywood that large-scale stories can be achieved through mid-scale budgets.

“A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.”

This line is delivered by Matt Damon playing Sonny Vacaro, a former Nike marketing executive, in the second half of “Air.” A pitch to Jordan and his family, this line is the defining one of the film, displaying the mindset of Nike executives during that time and the lesson of the film as a whole. Interestingly enough, the film does not show Jordan’s reaction, instead focusing on the people that believed in him the most: his mother, Doloris Jordan, his father, James Jordan and the Nike executives that took a risk on a scrawny, six-foot-six-inch rookie from the University of North Carolina.

Upon finishing the film, I began to appreciate Affleck’s detail-oriented and specific approach to Jordan’s story, or more fittingly, the story of how Jordan became an icon to all of us. I did some additional research after watching and found that Affleck had met with Jordan prior to filming the movie, asking him about any details they might have missed. Jordan insisted that his mother should be the focal point of this story, and because he owns the rights to his own biopic, it makes sense that he would steer away from a formulaic depiction of his life and upbringing.

Perhaps it was the ability for Affleck to communicate with Jordan that made this such an enjoyable experience, both aesthetically, with classic ’80s VHS and neon spandex, and narratively, with the emotional weight of the shoe deal. I immediately started comparing “Air” with other biopics, and this past year’s “Elvis” immediately came to mind. The director of the film, Baz Luhrman, seemed more interested in reigniting the magic of Elvis through broad strokes and accurate casting — we all know about Austin Butler’s Elvis voice by now, so no need to elaborate on that — than actually painting an image of who Elvis and the people in his life were.

Luhrman’s maximalist direction in “Elvis” is a stark contrast to Affleck’s commitment to historical accuracy and groundedness. “Air” touches on Jordan’s gambling addictions, his father’s death and other tragic events through montages, which serves to outline Jordan’s image in the modern context without straying away from the Nike partnership and unwavering support from his family. Luhrman doesn’t even offer a montage, glossing over the problematic elements of Elvis’ past, like him essentially stealing from Black artists and the 10-year age gap between him and his wife, Priscilla, which will be the focal point of Sofia Coppola’s upcoming biopic based on Priscilla’s memoir. 

In an attempt to highlight Black artists and address the racialized issues of Elvis’ past, Luhrman opts to embed modern music into this film, such as Doja Cat’s remix of “Hound Dog” and a Denzel Curry song. His meta way of attempting pseudo-retribution for the Black community is overshadowed by a plot that suggests that Elvis had a positive relationship with all the Black artists of the time, which couldn’t be farther from the actual truth.

Despite the shortcomings of a biopic like “Elvis,” its traditional approach does not necessarily make it a better or worse film than “Air.” Although I prefer the fill-in-the-blank style of “Air” compared to the on-the-nose approach to “Elvis,” I understand that not every viewer will feel the same way. Without some prior knowledge about Michael Jordan, people may question why they should care about Jordan, and especially Jordan’s shoes. “Elvis,” on the other hand, forces you to care about its subject, using the legacy and admiration of Elvis in present-day to inform the iconoclastic nature of Elvis when he was coming up in the music industry.

The success of “Air,” a mid-budget drama distributed by Artists Equity, at the box office emboldens Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to achieve their goal of promoting a talent-friendly film distribution process that prioritizes creators from the bottom-up. Given that Affleck changed the spec script for this film and still managed to give full credit to the original screenwriter is a feat that is reflective of the unprecedented, player-first provisions in Nike’s shoe deal that eventually turned Jordan into an iconic representation of the American dream.

Peter Dien CM ’25 is from West Covina, California. He enjoys listening to midwest emo, watching stand-up and playing Go with his roommate.

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