Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Message of Ben Affleck's Air: Courting a Legend

In contemplating the popular new Ben Affleck movie Air: Courting a Legend, it may be best to begin with some numbers. The financial net worth of an American senior citizen is typically in the range of $250,000. For the poorest quintile, of course, median net worth is much lower—at the low end, it’s common for a senior to have a net worth of $15,000, or even less.

Legendary shoe and logo designer Peter Moore, who died in 2022 at the age of 78, was estimated by Celebrity Net Worth to have had a net worth of almost $10 million not long before he died. He was, in other words, almost 40 times richer than the average American of the same age, and more than 650 times richer than a typical senior citizen in the poorest quintile.

Michael Jordan is also now by some measures a senior citizen; he recently turned 60. His 2022 net worth has been estimated to be in the range of $2 billion. Last year, then, he was 200 times richer than Peter Moore, roughly 8,000 times richer than the average American senior, and more than 5,000,000 times richer than the average American senior in the poorest quintile of the population.

Unbelievably, the perniciously charming Air invites us to root for Jordan as a financial underdog. In a key scene near the end of the movie, Jordan’s mother Deloris (played by Viola Davis) tells Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) that fairness demands that Jordan, who will, it’s claimed, be responsible for generating most of the money that will come from Air Jordan sales, receive not only the $250,000 that Nike has offered, but also a royalty on every pair of shoes sold. Vaccaro says he agrees with her that such a deal would be fair, but tells her as well that it’s never been done in the industry, and that he doesn’t think Nike CEO Phil Knight would ever go for a royalty deal. Of course Knight (played by Affleck) finally sees the light, the deal gets done, and it’s hugs and fist pumps and a happy ending all round.

The movie seems to embrace values we all share: how it can pay to take risks, to truly believe in something or someone against all the odds: how oppressed athletes deserve to be empowered against faceless corporate boards; how mothers deserve to be empowered as they struggle on their children’s behalf; how the struggles of black mothers and black women in particular deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Doesn’t it? Well, no. Not unless we take a blinkered view of the movie, and of modern America. Air is such a well-directed, well-acted, well-scripted, enjoyably entertaining film that’s it’s hard not to come out of the theater with blinkers on as to the values that it is promoting. But it’s worth giving the matter more thought.

First of all, let’s remember that Michael Jordan has nothing to do with designing the shoe; it’s Peter Moore who designs the shoe, gives it the name “Air Jordan,” and designs the iconic logo. What Jordan provides is a vehicle for hyping the shoe, not anything that makes it a better product. (A parallel example: if a novel is hyped by Oprah Winfrey, we expect sales revenues for the publisher and royalties for the author to soar—but we don’t think Winfrey deserves millions of dollars for recommending the book.)

Remove the blinkers, and we can see that what Air celebrates is an America in which a tiny minority become fabulously wealthy while ordinary people pay inflated prices for goods whose “value” rests on marketing hype rather than quality. An America in which we are too often tricked into rooting for “underdogs” who are nothing of the kind. (Interestingly, the film chooses to tell the story as one in which Nike offers Jordan $250,000, instead of the amount they actually offered in 1984, $2,500,000—$500,000 per year for five years, not counting the royalties.)

Here’s another take on how the Air story really ends. Michael Jordan’s net worth grows to over $2 billion. Phil Knight’s net worth grows to over $40 billion. Jordan’s agent David Falk sells his business for $100 million. Workers in Vietnam and Cambodia who make Air Jordan shoes are paid 25 cents per hour. And parents who often can’t really afford it are pressured into paying $185 for a pair of Air Jordan shoes that cost $5 to produce. Fist pumps, anyone?

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