There's a set of beliefs that have emerged over the last few years that I like to call the "Sports Left." Members of the Sports Left are the sorts of people who, beyond fandom of certain teams, have a specific set of beliefs: support for Colin Kaepernick. Opposition to racist mascots and logos, and support for college athletes being paid. The idea that billionaire owners tend to be villains. The notion that players should be entitled to choose what team and in which city they’d prefer to play. And a general belief in questioning authority, and against the all-knowing wisdom of powerful coaches.
These views are often at odds with traditional ways of thinking about sports, and its rise has launched a million angry pleas for fans and media members to "stick to sports." But this worldview is well-represented in the new film High Flying Bird, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh and debuted on Netflix over the weekend, following a Sundance premiere.
It's a sports film with almost no sports, that also, somewhat sneakily, adds up to a message consistent with that of the Sports Left. It doesn't even really feel like a political screed, at least until the end. Soderbergh was going to direct the movie adaptation of Moneyball, the bestselling Michael Lewis-authored book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, until the project fell apart shortly before production. The film was made a couple of years later by director Bennett Miller and received six Oscar nominations.
Moneyball, the book and movie, kicked off a revolution in new thinking about sports, one that pissed off the game’s establishment, at least until its ideas began to take the game over. However, it was ultimately another work that encouraged sports fans and viewers to put themselves in the shoes of team management—especially in a way explicitly involved using cheaper players to "exploit inefficiencies in the market."
High Flying Bird, written by Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, comes at the material very differently. Instead of making the general manager the hero, the new film centers on an agent. The film’s set during a basketball lockout, sort of like the one the NBA had in 2011. Ray Burke (Moonlight's Andre Holland) is an agent for basketball players and going through tough times since no one’s getting paid.
But Ray, along with his ambitious assistant (Atlanta's fantastic Zazie Beetz) comes up with a plan to solve the lockout and get his clients paid. It involves a youth basketball camp, secret negotiations with multiple parties, and a series of exhibition games, or at least the threat thereof. In some ways, the represents the sort of caper films Soderbergh has made in the past, like the Ocean's Eleven series and Logan Lucky. It's not quite as bouncy as those though, mostly because the style is so different.
High Flying Bird was shot with an iPhone, much like last year's Soderbergh film Unsane, except while that movie was set almost entirely in the drab confines of a mental hospital, while most scenes in the new film take place either in very tall buildings in New York City, or on the street right outside them.
The cast is strong across the board, led by Holland, who in Moonlight was the guy who owned the diner in the final scene. Beetz is outstanding, while Kyle MacLachlan, playing the leader of the NBA owners, is a welcome sight in movies again after his Twin Peaks: The Return comeback. Sonja Sohn, mostly unseen since The Wire went off the air, is also welcome as the head of the players' union.
The NBA is not mentioned by name, nor is any team. You may remember that NBA players really did try an early version of Ray's plan during a lockout in the 1990s, but the only thing anyone remembers in that a bunch of the players, led by Shawn Kemp, showed up to the exhibition game out of shape. But next time the NBA has a work stoppage, perhaps this film will give the players some ideas.
Ironically, another recent movie, the comedy What Men Want, also featured a sports agent (played by Taraji P. Henson) as the protagonist. The film also dealt with her quest to represent a top NBA draft pick, and even had some of the same cameos. However, that movie, a remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want, instead focused on broad comedy, while relegating its sports parody to using Tracy Morgan for an unsuccessful parody of Lavar Ball.
High Flying Bird, in many ways, is a revolutionary film, the best of 2019 to date.