‘High Flying Bird’: How a new era in sports created a new era in sports movies

Graphic by Natalie Bauer

A few weeks ago, NBA agent Rich Paul announced that his client, superstar Anthony Davis was demanding a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Davis news shattered the world of sports for two reasons. First, the idea of a generational talent like Davis joining LeBron James on the Lakers has the potential to reshape the entire competitive balance of the NBA. The second, and perhaps more important reason, is that by requesting a trade with two years left in his contract, Davis and Paul are attempting to rework who controls a player’s destiny. In the NBA, it isn’t normal to have players, instead of owners, choose what teams they play for.

Just days after the trade demand, Netflix released Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird,” a film about a fictional NBA lockout, and the plot of the film seems like it was made with Davis’ and Paul’s power play as source code.

The film follows NBA agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) as he devises a plan to create player-controlled one-on-one tournaments for his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) during the fictionalized NBA lockout.

The film’s almost too-relevant plot makes it a perfect sports movie for the modern era, and Soderbergh’s masterful direction, the film’s crackling script and Holland’s star performance combine to make the film a must-watch.

Soderbergh communicated a sense of authenticity by shooting the film on an iPhone. This choice gave the camera crew the freedom to whip around real New York City locations, following the film’s protagonists as they moved from backroom deals to press junkets.

However, the use of the iPhone does detract a bit from the cinematic vastness typically characteristic of Soderbergh’s work. While the camera gives the film a sense of energy, the unmistakable smallness of the camera’s screen make the cinematography feel more like an HBO show than a movie.

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The film’s script, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, one of the writers of “Moonlight,” enhances Soderbergh’s impressive direction with a sense of joy and grandiosity that makes the film endlessly captivating. At its most basic, “High Flying Bird” contains scenes of dialogue between characters, discussing the nitty gritty of collective bargaining agreements and contract law. The seemingly boring and complicated subject matter is made to seem like a captivating thriller of life and death through McCraney’s beautifully constructed words.

McCraney also admirably attempts to use the idea of NBA players’ freedom as a larger analogy for race relations under capitalism. While these ideas are fascinating and the attempt is impressive, they ultimately feel half-baked compared to the film’s well-crafted dialogue.

This dialogue is truly brought to life by the film’s most impressive element: The star-making performance of Holland. Holland has long been a favorite of mine, with scene stealing supporting performances in “The Knick” and “Moonlight,” but his leading role in “High Flying Bird” marks the moment that the character actor becomes a movie star.

More importantly, Holland gives a performance that exudes empathy and warmth, which makes the audience truly believe that Burke is willing to fight for the best interests of his clients. In other words, move over Jerry Maguire. Holland has made Burke the new golden standard for cinematic sports agents.

The Davis trade saga and subsequent ramifications for player movement in the NBA are far from over. However, it is clear that Soderbergh and McCraney have created a perfect sports film for our current moment in the NBA. Ultimately, however, “High Flying Bird” profiles as more of a cinematic all-star rather than hall of famer highly entertaining, but short of greatness.

3.5/5 stars

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Ben Hafetz PZ ’21 is a media studies and politics double major. He likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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