In 2009, days before production was about to begin, production on Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Moneyball was put on hold. Soderbergh wanted to put elements like interviews with real-life players into the movies, and that made Sony skittish, so they fired him and replaced him with Bennett Miller with Aaron Sorkin working on the screenplay. High Flying Bird feels like it could be the movie Soderbergh wanted to make with Moneyball—an intense, cerebral, hard-hitting look at the business of sport interspersed with interviews from real athletes from that sport. The setting is now basketball instead of baseball, but you can see that Soderbergh, working from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney is deeply interested in the business of sport and how the uneven profits spread largely to the owners at the expense of the largely black workforce who fight over the scraps. High Flying Bird is bursting with interesting ideas to the point where you wish it had more scope than it’s iPhone cinematography and two-person conversations allow.
The NBA is in a lockout, and rookie Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) is in a precarious position by taking a loan to hold him over until the lockout ends, except there’s no end in sight as the players union and the owners have come to an impasse over splitting revenue. However, Erick’s agent, Ray Burke (André Holland) has his sights set much higher. He sees an opportunity to disrupt the league’s stranglehold on the livelihoods of its players. In the span of 72 hours, Ray outmaneuvers everyone to either break the lockout or break the league.
There are so many fascinating ideas swirling around McCraney’s script that never get pursued in a satisfactory manner. When the characters talk (and make no mistake, the majority of High Flying Bird is just characters chatting) about what it means that the league controls Erick’s “image”, that’s a captivating notion, especially with regards to race and power. You have a league comprised of white owners telling young black men how they can and cannot be seen. Now, they may pay those men for that service, but that payment is wildly disproportionate to what those owners receive. It’s not “slavery” (a term the film acknowledges is soaked in history, subtext, and emotion), but it’s certainly not equitable either. And yet because we have to always return to Ray’s machinations, the film doesn’t have time to dwell on such concepts.
That’s a shame because High Flying Bird feels like an immediate and necessary movie in an age of widening income inequality. That’s really the source of tension here—that the billionaires who own the teams will grow even wealthier while the players will have to fight with each other for what’s left—and it could easily apply to what’s happening in America right now. There are fewer jobs available and rather than upending the system, the workforce fights itself on what remains. High Flying Bird flirts with the notion of, “What if we found a different way to seize power back using 21st century technology?” but when it comes back down to Earth, its conclusions are anticlimactic. The system can’t be upended, but it can be slightly nudged.
And yet despite these unpursued avenues, I still found High Flying Bird dense and captivating. It’s like sitting down with someone who has studied the business of the NBA and turned it into a story that still requires your full attention. It doesn’t even really get into how players will cut their own salaries so they can play on certain teams (which seems totally ass-backwards), but you at least understand that there’s a disparity at play, and that disparity is inseparable from race (the only major white characters are Ray’s boss and a team owner). There are plenty of intricacies crammed into the film’s brief 90-minute runtime, and it leaves you wanting to learn more.
Perhaps to give the film over to the ideas presented, Soderbergh decided to go small and shoot with the iPhone, but that approach, which served him well in the psychological thriller Unsane, backfires here by making everything seem muted and stretched out. Soderbergh gets a lot of energy from his stars, especially Holland who owns the film from the moment he comes on screen, but the visuals are drab and lack the immediacy of the situation. Obviously, Soderbergh is a gifted cinematographer so he made a choice here for High Flying Bird, but the choice makes the film less compelling than it could be given the ideas discussed.
If you’re fascinated by the business of sport, you’ll likely find High Flying Bird a riveting ride even if its plot beats are a bit rote and in service to the ideas of upending the management-labor divide that cripples athletes before they even have a chance to play a single minute of professional ball. But watching High Flying Bird, I almost wish it could be a series since there are so many interesting avenues to travel with the characters, the plotlines, and the subtext the conflicts presents. As it stands, High Flying Bird is still a fascinating look at who holds power in a business largely divided by race, but you always get the sense it could be so much more.