Slick and handsome, Soderbergh’s latest is jam-packed with clever plot beats and a powerful commentary on the commodification of professional athletes.
Social media has given us a window through which we can peer at the lives of our heroes. Through Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc., we are closer than ever to our sporting idols; yet their lifestyles are so far from our experiences they have never been further away. High Flying Bird, the latest offering from the genre-hopping Steven Soderbergh, gives us an insight into the commodification of young athletes and how perhaps they might be able to tip the scales in their favor.
The film stars Andre Holland (Moonlight, Selma) as Ray Burke, an agent who is struggling to represent his basketball prodigy during a “lockout” (a players’ strike caused by a dispute between the players’ association and the NBA). Under pressure from his boss (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek), Ray engineers an online feud between his client Erick, played by Melvin Gregg (American Vandal, UnREAL) and his teammate and rival.
High Flying Bird gives us a look behind the scenes at the business side of basketball. Everyone has their own agenda: the players, the owners, the media and, of course, the agents. Ray, however, can see the big picture. He understands that professional basketball is about the players and as well paid as they are, they do not hold the power. The power belongs to those that govern and own the sport (embodied by a delightfully smarmy Kyle McLaughlin). Ray finds a way to leverage new media to bring about a potential revolution that could change the fabric of how professional sport is marketed and consumed.
There is no doubt that this is a Soderbergh film. The camera follows our characters as they scheme and plan, and the trademark music cues give this the feeling of a caper but does not have the swagger of Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven or Logan Lucky. The tone of High Flying Bird is more muted than those films and the themes are far more substantial. There are regular references to slavery and there is a discussion of “the game on top of the game”, where powerfulmiddle-agedd white men exploit the talent of young black men until they get injured or cease to have value. Smartly, the film goes to great pains to not conflate pro basketball with slavery directly, but the implication is clear: young black men are commodified for the benefit of white rich dudes who contribute little to the end product.
The film also makes use of talking head interviews with three real pro basketball players to further blur the lines between fact and fiction. Karl Anthony-Towns, Donavon Mitchell and Reggie Jackson provide the content and are shot in black and white to contrast these sequences from the rest of the film. At times this device is effective, adding credibility to the narrative and underscoring the point that young players are on their own; at other times, however, it is a distraction that pulls the viewer away from the story of the film.
High Flying Bird has a lot packed into its 90 minutes and its subject matter is compelling enough to have sustained a longer run time. With a bit more room to breathe, the film would have been able to give a bit more depth to its characters which would have made its themes and message more impactful. We are told several times about the story of Ray’s cousin, whose death clearly had much to do with shaping the man he is today, but this subplot is never really explored fully enough to give us a proper insight into Ray’s motivation.
High Flying Bird has high ambition and a piercing eye for the politics of sport. Its story feels ahead of the curve, as if it could be a predictor of what may be still to come in mainstream sport. The sport is no longer the star, the athlete is, and we want instant, round the clock access to them.
Andy joined the Ready Steady Cut team in October 2018. A Graduate of Exeter University, he writes mainly about films and TV.