A Game On Top Of A Game
[Editor’s note: This episode is brought you by California College of the Arts MFA in Writing Program, and the pre-review below was written last week in advance of High Flying Bird’s release.]
For being more examined now than literally any moment before this exact moment (happy NBA trade deadline day), sports are relatively still unexamined in our culture. Reporters comb through Instagram posts to see if players tapped the “like” button on something that could tornado into a blog narrative. Statisticians search for golden measurements to gauge player performance beyond what the human eye can perceive. Players routinely sit down for hours-long podcast conversations.
But all of these information-age practices are built on uninterrogated assumptions — that sports leagues are the way it’s been and always will be, that it’s proper and ethical for sports at the highest level to also be the rarefied, absurdist height of capitalism, that these men and women ought to take the much they’re given on the terms it’s given. (Don’t do that, and you’re Colin Kaepernick.)
High Flying Bird, then, is remarkable for its vision more than anything else, to approach one of the most-loved entertainment institutions in the world — the NBA — and look through to its skeleton without much sentiment. Steven Soderbergh may bring the movie its slickness, its notoriety, and its cast, but Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney makes the film.
Starring Andre Holland (Moonlight, The Knick) as sports agent Ray Burke, High Flying Bird sets itself amid a fictional NBA lockout to scrutinize the inherent inequalities in the business via Ray’s relationship with his rookie client who’s stuck in contract limbo. The Netflix release immediately sets out about to capturing the rhythmic irony of their heated introductory conversation over lunch. They currently exist in a world where everything has been put on pause, but that only means Ray needs to work double time.
And goodness is Andre Holland up to that task. He’s chomping on Sorkin-level dialogue that only becomes more enjoyable on rewatch. It’s rich with references real, imagined, but always hyper-specific — from Wilt Chamberlain and Game of Thrones on the one hand to two pre-teens bonding over LSU’s “HBC proximity” to Southern. But the pace of delivery and creativity of language is mostly on the level. It proves the seriousness and virtuosity of the world, one that can sometimes seem a little dingy when Soderbergh palms his iPhone around the halls of overlit high-rises and empty basketball gyms.
For an ostensible sports movie, the athleticism here is of the mind. Call it Michael Clayton for the sports industry. Ray Burke is not a hustler, but hustle may be all he has left. The bloom is off the rose for him; rather, the dramatic tension hangs in whether he can pull off a plot to end the league lockout and pay it forward to the next generation, that being his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) and his assistant Sam (the wonderful Zazie Beetz).
Given that theme, High Flying Bird is the rare sports movie that’s legitimately inspiring but not rosy. (The stock of the genre is usually the opposite.) Ray is a hero only in deed, not in manner or in track record. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sure developing a great one though. And this is Soderbergh’s best work since Magic Mike. I’ll probably watch it two more times this weekend. Podcast below.
our favorite movies
Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.