They invented a game on top of a game.
Steven Soderbergh’s movies often center on people operating on multiple levels at once — think Ocean’s Eleven — but his newest, High Flying Bird, uses that device to attack a system that is, itself, operating on multiple levels at once.
That “game on top of a game” refers to the way the NBA turned its sport into a business, and more specifically, the way white owners commodified and subjugated the black athletes that drive its success. The movie takes place during an NBA lockout, with the players asking for a bigger share of the money they earn for the league, and the owners assuming that eventually everything will get back to the way they want it.
In the middle is Ray Burke, a sports agent who sees how little power the players have over much of anything, including their own words and faces. But Ray, too, is operating on a different level: He doesn’t just start playing his own game, he writes entirely new rules to the game everyone else thinks they’re playing.
High Flying Bird is complicated and moves very quickly, and I ended up watching it twice. That second time, I could see how the pieces were being moved, and let me tell you: This movie is razor sharp. It exposes a system that functions on exploiting even its highly paid workers — an exploitation that’s perpetrated by everyone, including us and our unquenchable thirst for players to be “on brand” at all times — and it’s filled with reminders of the larger experience of the black athlete in our culture. Plus, we see what can happen when those in power get even the slightest hint they may not be in total control.
Soderbergh is always at the forefront of new technologies in filmmaking, and he’s constantly looking for ways to be more efficient, and as a result, this is the second movie in a row he’s shot entirely on an iPhone. His last, the psychological thriller Unsane, was impressive in the way it used the iPhone’s limitations to its advantage, but the director learns so quickly that High Flying Bird looks, well, like any well-shot Hollywood movie. The image is clean and crisp, his camera is kinetic: no gimmicks here, just a solid piece of filmmaking. On an iPhone.
The way Soderbergh, in tandem with the dead-on script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, crafts his movie is as clever as any of his heist films, and as socially incisive as his Oscar-winning Traffic. High Flying Bird is absolutely of the moment, it could easily have been “ripped from the headlines,” and it shows us just how much both the game, and the game on top of the game, must change.
On a separate note, just a reminder that the Wichita Public :ibrary is screening this year’s Oscar-nominated short films this weekend and throughout next week. The full slate of nominees will show this Saturday and the following Saturday at the Advanced Learning Library, with various branches showing each of the animated, live action, and documentary programs separately at various times throughout next week. A full schedule of the screenings is at wichitalibrary.org.