“A movie about sports that doesn’t need to showcase a frame from an actual game to keep the viewer’s attention.”
by Ken Bakely
Steven Soderbergh, shooting his second film in a row on a modified iPhone camera (after Unsane), continues to do more with the style than other established filmmakers ever would, who might see it as just a stunt. The washed-out images and malaise-inspiring digital cleanliness of the frame take High Flying Bird from its sports drama roots and elevate the fluid human dynamics within each complex situation that the plot weaves through. Focusing on Ray (André Holland), a sports agent trying to navigate Erick (Melvin Gregg), a top NBA draft pick, through a lengthy lockout, the film dives into the complicated implications of how professional sports are structured. It immediately points out that tight broadcasting regulations and the subsequent sense of ownership of the labor of athletes by a small group of wealthy, interconnected businessmen ensure that from the start, the players lack a true sense of power over their very selves. The plot is purposefully maze-like, filled with challenging contradictions and the ever-present specters of grim sociopolitical implications; and yet, through it all, Soderbergh’s free-flowing style ensures that the project is engaging at multiple levels, holding our interest through each new development and observation.
A big part of what makes the movie so fascinating is that it’s also about efforts to rebel against that system. Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney parallels the high-profile world of major league sports against the universality of labor struggles everywhere. High Flying Bird also notes the disturbing racial dynamics that have long been observed in sports businesses – many athletes and their representatives, like Erick, Ray, and players’ association leader Myra (Sonja Sohn), are people of color; while the profiteers who fight to maintain the status quo, like team owner David (Kyle MacLachlan), are mostly older white men. Professional sports may be an unusually large industry in terms of publicity of output and the visibility of the laborers in question, but Soderbergh and McCraney present it as a snapshot of the problems which pervade American society as a whole. As the lockout continues, Ray envisions a sweeping proposal: a complete revolt against the current system, envisioning a drastically reformed league where the players have control over their own image, no longer suppressed by the corporate behemoths which seem to publicly support them while, behind the scenes, denying them even the right to play on a court that isn’t sanctioned as an official broadcasting opportunity.
These components all come together to form a striking portrait that sneaks up on you with its otherwise casual cinematography. Holland commands the screen in the lead role, delivering a searing performance that moves throughout his character’s ambitions and goals, shaped by the increased tensions that mount as his efforts to subvert the establishment draw more ire. His interactions with others – from Gregg’s Erick, to Sohn’s Myra, to Bill Duke’s Spencer, a storied youth coach who is perhaps the highlight of an already brilliant supporting cast – are as accomplished as his own moments of character development. It’s testament to both the abilities of the actors and McCraney’s worldbuilding. Though High Flying Bird stumbles in the final stretch, as it seeks to wind down from the impressive heights that everything builds towards in the climax, there’s no mistaking how the film’s accomplished mounting and assured direction go a long way in smoothing over many of the pitfalls the third act could have otherwise been more hampered by.
Soderbergh once again proves his skill at thematic and technical victories alike. The whole thing feels like an honor to behold, with skilled professionals working at the top of their abilities to deliver a clearly realized and urgently argued work. High Flying Bird is a movie about sports that doesn’t need to showcase a frame of an actual game to keep the viewer’s attention. After all, it’s also a film about larger systems as much as it is any specific subject matter, and how difficult it is to delineate where one problem ends and another begins. The movie’s tagline, taken from a quote said by Spencer, references “the game on top of the game,” or the dealmaking that goes on in conference rooms in order to get an actual game on TV. But conspicuously absent from any of these processes are those whose work is being seen. They’re the reason that the powers that be have so much money to put on the line in the first place. Ray’s idea to level the playing field, so to speak, isn’t at all unreasonable, but it’s very telling, when considering how these structures seem to systematically work, how it sounds wildly revolutionary to everyone else.