NYT Film Critic Loves ‘Slam Dunk Against Capitalism,’ Hates Liam Neeson's 'Racist' Movie

February 9th, 2019 5:45 PM

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott clearly had a liberal itch to scratch in his movie reviews Friday.

Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird is about an N.B.A. rookie caught in a long strike, who has a vision of fighting the league’s entrenched ownership. Scott's take is headlined “A Thrilling Slam Dunk Against Capitalism.” (Reminder: Scott is employed by a billion dollar organization,the New York Times Co.)

To keep to the metaphor, he opened by tossing up a clumsy brick of a shot:

On a basketball court, “give me the rock” means “pass the ball.” In “High Flying Bird,” an exhilarating and argumentative caper concerning a sports agent, his N.B.A.-rookie client and other interested parties, the phrase takes on a slightly different connotation -- something akin to “the workers should seize control of the means of production.”

Notwithstanding the presence of three real-life professional ballers (Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell) giving straight-to-camera testimony about life in the league, this isn’t a sports movie in any conventional sense. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it uses the charisma of athletes and the competitive energy of the game they play to catalyze a feisty, twisty fable of labor and capital in the 21st century.

Other reviewers at liberal publications managed to acknowledge Soderbergh's critique of the business of pro sports, without seeing goosebumps over some supposed "smash the system" message like the one Scott sees in the film.

In the first scene, Ray is lecturing his client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a recent No. 1 draft pick whose professional debut has been postponed, about financial responsibility and personal discipline. It’s a big-brotherly scolding and a pep talk, but also the beginnings of a ruthless critique of the way the system works, exploiting naïve and ambitious young men like Erick even as it promises them fame and fortune.

It's more than a mere “promise” of fame and fortune, given the average NBA salary was over $6 million in 2017. Though it’s true that if the Democrats manage to execute their “slam dunk against capitalism” with 70% marginal tax rates and wealth taxes, those numbers will probably go down.

That idea -- that in spite of high salaries and endorsement deals, athletes are fundamentally workers, generating profits for the owning class -- is refined and complicated as Ray pinballs from one meeting to the next....


In the course of all the back-and-forthing, a scheme emerges that strikes Ray as wonderfully simple and potentially revolutionary. What if the players, paralyzed by the intransigence of their employers, could eliminate those middlemen and take control of the fruits of their own talents?

Scott got starry-eyed by the end:

And it leaves you with a lot to think about, in addition to race, class and basketball: what it means to love your work, and why it matters to be paid for it; how utopian visions and tactical calculations work together to create the possibility of change....

Strike! Strike! Strike!

Scott got more defensive with his politics in his take on the thriller “Cold Pursuit,” starring Liam Neeson (who is involved in a controversy over some recent racial comments)

Neeson’s recent revelation, in a newspaper interview, that he once came close to acting out his own racist revenge fantasies might spoil some of the fun.


This is the part of the review in which I note that “Cold Pursuit” traffics in a bunch of dubious stereotypes and some questionable sexual politics. This will make some of you mad at the movie, some at me....

....Emmy Rossum as a ski-town cop is supposed to remind us of Frances McDormand in “Fargo,” but bases her successful police work on the sexual manipulation of some poor sap in Denver. She is encouraged in this by her patrol partner (John Doman), who otherwise embodies what happens to a white man when he gives in to the imperatives of political correctness.

Scott got prickly, imagining backlash from his readers and preemptively retorting with sarcasm.

Perhaps you think the same about me. I don’t really care. And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not accusing “Cold Pursuit” of being casually sexist or accidentally racist. On the contrary: Its misogyny and racism strike me as perfectly deliberate, if also mostly disingenuous. That is, the movie works very hard to provoke a reaction like the one in the previous two paragraphs to justify the inevitable counter-reaction. Why make everything political? Lighten up, snowflake! It’s just a movie.