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Review: The Movie On Top of the Game—Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird”

The prolific director’s latest exploration of the art of the con is a sports drama about money.
Photo: Netflix
Team sports don’t get more movie-ready than basketball. The triple drama of the team, the player, and the ball; movement in the horizontal and vertical; sweat and surface; the sound of paddling thwacks and clipped squeaks of shoe rubber on sugar maple. So it takes a mindset like Steven Soderbergh’s to make a film about the pro basketball in which the sport itself is never played. Sure, the same basic description applies to What Men Want—which, oddly, also features the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns. But Soderbergh’s interest has always been in the game within the game—the backroom play, the heist at the casino, fraud in business and finance—and the way money changes hands, whether it’s in the cash room or the board room. He has mastered the art of turning the movement of multi-million-dollar sums into metaphors. 
Still, High Flying Bird, the prolific director’s latest exploration of the art of the con, has the hallmarks of a sports movie: it’s all about legwork, personality, the underdog versus big corporate, the importance of the psych-out and the sneaky play. Like last year’s Unsane, it was shot on an iPhone (and, from the looks of it, a low budget), though in many ways, the approach couldn’t be more different. The earlier film felt like Soderbergh’s impression of cheesy B-movies and thrillers. It was a game of its own, the usual themes of deceit and capital disguised behind shaky wheelchair dolly shots and ugly lighting. Bird, in contrast, plays widescreen against the dialogue of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s smart and very theatrical script—a series of mostly one-on-one scenes, set largely in New York in symbolic winter, months into an NBA lockout that has kept players off the court and money out of bank accounts. 
In it, we hear a lot about games within games—or, more specifically, the “game on top of the game,” in the words of the wise community-center basketball coach Spencer (the inimitable Bill Duke). Next to nothing is said about the sport itself. Parts of the plot can seem as obscure as fine-print legalese in a phone-book-sized contract, or lost in the grooves of Soderbergh’s direction; this is Bird’s biggest weakness. But the topics of conversation remain consistent: money and value; the underlying conflict between a predominantly white class of team owners and the largely black class of players; the forms of sub-classism that exist therein. The mise-en-scène brings to mind a deconstructed NBA arena: We see a lot of hardwood, glass, metal, big screens, and bleachers, even something akin to a shower or locker-room scene (albeit in a ritzy health club sauna), just never in the context of a basketball game or an audience. Which isn’t to say that something or someone isn’t being played. 
In the middle of all this is Bird’s hero, Ray Burke (André Holland), a typical Soderbergh-ian smooth operator—a slick agent who devotes himself to the deal as an artform and looks sharp in a suit. We first meet him in a restaurant as he applies his brand of tough love to a star client, the No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). The young man has let himself get talked into taking out a high-interest loan before he’s played a single game or cashed a single check. But Ray is going broke, too. His company credit card is being declined, and, as we soon learn, his boss at the agency has frozen his salary. Given that Ray works for a percentage, the salary has always been a joke. But right now that percentage amounts to an income of zero—and anyway, it’s the principle that counts. 
Photo: Netflix
One idea that circulates throughout Bird is that money is a symbol. Another—which is the point that Ray ultimately sets out to make in a manner not completely unlike an Ocean’s caper—is that the game needs the players more than the players need the game. Considering Soderbergh’s predilection for identifying with high-stakes swindlers as director alter-egos (with Danny Ocean being the most obvious example), it seems inevitable that Bird would come across as a veiled self-portrait; Netflix isn’t just the movie’s distributor, but a plot point in Ray’s scheme to force the team owners (led by Kyle MacLachlan’s modern-day patrician) and the players out of their contract dispute. His weapon is the phone. In that sense, the film mirrors its own making, and makes a better case for iPhone as a filmmaking tool than Unsane did. Phones make things happen—whether it’s viral videos and social media beefs that stir up public interest, or a scene shot mid-day on a Manhattan sidewalk with minimal prep. 
Though one might argue that Ray’s backstory doesn’t add a lot to the plot, McCraney’s lines often ring memorably, and his characters are intriguingly defined: Sam (Zazie Beetz), Ray’s loyal-but-ambitious former assistant and protégé; Myra (Sonja Sohn), the director of the players’ union, who’s dealing with her own personal deadlock; Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), the mother and manager of Erick Scott’s rival, Jamero Umber, a firm believer in the prosperity gospel. (Bird is also one of those rare examples of a movie about men in an all-male profession where the most well-developed supporting characters are all women.) But there’s a confrontational aspect to Soderbergh’s style that adds unpredictable, angular tension to McCraney’s writing. 
The camerawork (phonework?) and editing—done, as always, by Soderbergh himself under his usual pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard—hop back and forth over the 180-degree line, shortsiding characters, framing them with too much headroom, or sometimes throwing them on opposite extremes of the frame, turning restaurants and offices into mini-arenas where the balance power is always on the verge of tipping into negative space. Spencer, the community-center coach, has a kind of "Hail Mary" he makes people recite any time they take history's name in vain—that is, whenever they equate pro basketball to the plight of slaves. But one can't overlook the fact that, like many of Soderbergh's films since his switch to digital in the late 2000s, Bird is about the price put on bodies, whether sick (as in Unsane, Side Effects, Contagion) or attractively toned (as in The Girlfriend Experience or Magic Mike). 
What the player gets out of being dehumanized by the sport is celebrity and status. It’s their right to make themselves heard—though it’s not uncommon, in a capitalist society like ours, to equate any kind of pay with hush money. For all of the considerable hustle it expends going from one to place to another, Bird ultimately builds to an anticlimactic conclusion. But can we really expect a drama to not only point out systemic issues, but solve them too? And anyway, one watches for the game, not the score. 

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