Ray Burke (Andre Holland) talks a great game. If verbiage was a professional sport, the man would be rocking MVP rings, adorning Wheaties boxes, have his own sneaker line. Kids would be wearing his jersey. He’s first-round Hall-of-Famer material when it comes to pitching clients, charming “the naysayers and the hate-swayers,” power-chatting his way out of tight spots. And Burke, a sports agent with a whole gift shop’s worth of gab, happens to be in a bit of a sticky situation at the moment. The NBA is six months into a lockout. The administrative bigwigs and the players-association reps are waiting see who blinks first. Ray’s star rookie, a basketball phenom named Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg; remember this name), is stuck between making his league debut and limbo. No one’s balling. No one’s getting paid. Some folks may be getting fired. Desperate times.
Only Ray, he’s got this idea, see. It’s crazy, but it might work. Just sit tight, he tells Erick. The agent hands the young man a book in sealed manila envelope, says it’s “the Bible”; don’t open it yet, he counsels. You’ll know when you’ll need it. Then Ray walks back to his downtown office a dozen-or-so city blocks away — can’t take a cab when your expense-account credit card has been shut off — and begins to plot. The longer he walks past all those skyscrapers, each a monument to man’s ingenuity and ambition, the more he starts to see that yes, there is an alternative. This is how revolutions start, with disruption. And who better to make a movie about disruption than a real-life disruptor?
Now two TV gigs (including one that started as a choose-your-own-adventure app) and three movies into a post-“retirement” third-wind renaissance, Steven Soderbergh isn’t just refusing to slow down — he’s ramping up as fast as he can, and the more rules he can break the better. And as his latest High Flying Bird demonstrates, the combination of nimbleness and outrage suits him oh-so-well. A collaboration between the filmmaker, The Knick star Holland and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (who penned the source material for Moonlight), this deft, exhilarating takedown of professional sports and corporate strangleholds suggests that remaking the rules of the game is only the beginning. The power, the movie says, doesn’t rest solely in the hands of late-capitalist masters. It belongs to the players — and to paradigm-skewing artists looking to stir shit up.
What Ray realizes is that, while the NBA essentially owns these young men who go from college draft pick to new kid on the court, there are loopholes to be utilized as leverage. So let’s say, for example, Erick and his future teammate Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), who’ve been publicly beefing on social media, were to somehow show up at the same place, i.e. the annual charity event held by a local basketball coach/neighborhood figurehead (the mighty Bill Duke). Maybe Burke’s assistant Sam (Atlanta‘s Zazie Beetz, invaluable) can whisper sweet nothings into the young client’s ear about how he’s destined for greatness. Maybe the agent plays up the rivalry by working on the ego of Jamero’s protective mother (Jeryl Prescott). Maybe words will be exchanged, gauntlets thrown down, an impromptu one-on-one grudge match goaded into existence.
And then what if partial clips of this co-ordinated “off-the-cuff” showdown, viewed by some 45 million viewers online who are hungry for action — and filmed on phones similar to the exact same iPhone that Soderbergh himself shot this movie on, under the nom de cinematography Peter Andrews — could be presented as proof that broadcasting rights, league-sanctioned tournaments, shot-calling muckety-mucks, et al., are superfluous? “I’m taking a meeting with Netflix,” Burke says at one point, wielding the notion of a runaround via livestreaming player-run pick-up games like a threat. That would be the Netflix, by the way, that’s also underwriting the movie you’re watching, perhaps even on their service at home instead of inside a theater. At which point, the glare from the hall of mirrors becomes momentarily blinding and you realize that High Flying Bird isn’t really about sports at all.
Or rather it isn’t just about sports, which is partially what makes this whipsmart, wickedly subversive satire so incredible even if you don’t care about draft picks and point spreads. Yes, there are interludes of players like Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell talking to the camera about challenges they faced during their respective rookie years. You get lots of inside-baseball back-and-forth — apologies for mixing sports references here — about the industry between Burke and the players-association negotiator, played by The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn with her signature don’t-waste-my-time-with-your-bullshit steeliness. Zachary Quinto’s boss shows up occasionally to fret over the state of their firm and Kyle MacLachlan personifies the reptilian sleaziness of a rich, rotten one-percenter owner.
But Soderbergh and McCraney are after bigger game, or more specifically, what Duke’s sagely old-timer refers to as “a game on top of a game.” (Tellingly, you never witness Erick and Jamero actually square off; the movie cuts away after the first dribble.) They understand that pro sports is but one arena where exploitation and inequity is the law of the land, and that anyone with eyeballs can suss out the racial disparity between the owners and the players. What the world needs are folks who are willing not to accept any of this as a given, who can buck systems.
In other words, it needs a Ray Burke, who Holland turns into a motormouthed smooth operator and a MVP visionary in a middle-management suit. It’s a cliché to talk about actors who let you see the character thinking, but even Ray’s reaction shots are like a Mozart symphony of whirling cerebral motors. It needs a McCraney, who has a knack for setting up one two-to-three-person conversation after another yet never letting you feel like you’re watching showcases; knows how to embed high-conceptual arguments in the mouths of fleshed-out characters; and can balance rhetorical questions with quotable lines. (“To move merch and sell sneakers, they need your service,” Burke says, laying out the symbiotic relationship between employee, employer and consumer in one fell swoop.)
And it needs a Soderbergh, who invests this tale of outrunning and outgunning organizations — be they sports leagues or studios tied to old distribution/exhibition models — with a sense of energy, verve and mischievous glee. Restless would be too mild a word for his guerilla camerawork here; following Burke, Erick, Sam and everyone else down city streets and office hallways, through backroom deals and backseat powwows, around neighborhood gyms and fancy business lunches will leave you a bit dizzy. He gives you a vibrant all-talk symposium on the economic bubble of Sports Inc. that’s ready to burst and an Altman film minus the overlapping lip service. It’s not a coincidence that the movie is named after a Richie Havens protest song, or that the singer’s anthem “Handsome Johnny” plays over the climax, in which we finally find out what “the Bible” is. It’s too good a mic-drop moment to spoil here. You just need to see it — all of it — for yourself. The ball’s in your court.