“They invented a game on top of a game.” So says Spence (played by Bill Duke), gruffly reflecting on the history of organized basketball to his friend and protégé Ray (André Holland), in Steven Soderbergh’s new film, High Flying Bird. In this movie—shot on smartphones and distributed both online and in a few theaters—no professional game is ever played, and no team is ever named. Everything about the film has a surreptitious air, almost as if the audience is being given a rare peek into an executive boardroom. If basketball is the primary game that Spence describes, the NBA is the game on top of the game. High Flying Bird wonders what would happen if that second layer—the business of the sport—went away.
This is the second project in a row that Soderbergh, the form-shattering godfather of the indie drama, has shot on iPhone cameras, which lend a crisp but unsettling vibe to the proceedings. The iPhone sands away a lot of the cinematic sheen one might get with a bigger, more robust camera, but it can also be put anywhere in a room without taking up much space. In High Flying Bird, that makes it an ideal device for listening in on conversations between agents, executives, owners, and players during a fictionalized NBA lockout.
Soderbergh’s last film, Unsane, used the iPhone to smuggle audiences into a malevolent mental hospital for a queasy viewing experience. High Flying Bird has a little more snap and crackle. Powered by a fantastic script from the playwright and Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), the film imagines what could happen if pro players took their careers into their own hands during a labor shutdown, and how they might use the internet to get the word out. That sense of business-busting online innovation corresponds to the film’s streaming release, which itself bypasses the traditional movie business. I’ve never seen a Netflix movie do a better job of noting the dramatic irony of its very viewing format.
After an introductory interview with the Detroit Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson (the film includes documentary-style chats with three real NBA stars), High Flying Bird opens at a glitzy Manhattan restaurant. Ray, an agent, is counseling his client Erick (Melvin Gregg) against accepting any exorbitant loans during the lockout. Ray then learns his credit card has been frozen, his funds having slowed to a trickle while basketball isn’t being played. He embarks on a quest to upend a sports system dependent on rich owners and lucrative TV deals, and to give power back to stars like Erick.
McCraney’s script is designed to challenge viewers’ preconceived notions of how the NBA treats its players, but it does so without feeling like a TED Talk about the economy of sports. The banter between Ray, Erick, Spence, Ray’s wise assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), and the players’-union lawyer Myra (Sonja Sohn) sings with intelligence and wit. Holland, who worked with Soderbergh on the wonderful Cinemax series The Knick, is an obvious star, giving Ray the right amount of swagger and brooding intelligence. He’s a much smarter, more self-assured Jerry Maguire for the 21st century, carefully laying out a plan to disrupt his industry without tipping the audience off as to how he could possibly carry it out.
Soderbergh and McCraney let information dribble out slowly through bits of overheard dialogue and furtive glances between characters. Ray’s commitment to shaking things up has something to do with his past—he once represented a cousin who played basketball—but what exactly happened back then is for the viewer to figure out. The same goes for Spence’s motives. Duke, a venerable character actor and director in his own right, plays Spence as a sort of hangdog relic of a previous age. He’s easy for younger characters to dismiss, but he also possesses a wealth of knowledge about how the NBA’s image rights and legal infrastructure keep players from acting independently.
High Flying Bird builds to a showdown and a stunt that on paper seem borderline outrageous. But anyone who’s a fan of professional basketball will realize how plausible this specific labor action seems—and how differently the 2011 lockout could’ve gone had players managed to leverage their own images, and their online brands, against the owners who were demanding that they sacrifice future salary to get back on the court. That scenario is what High Flying Bird has fun pondering, and why it’s such an unusual delight to watch. Soderbergh’s unorthodox film release and cheap, idiosyncratic shooting style are ideal fits for the director’s fascinating, speculative story about the future of the NBA.