High Flying Bird | Steven Soderbergh | February 8, 2019
Steven Soderbergh has been creating at a feverous pace ever since he returned from “retirement.” Last year, he showed off his capabilities with just an iPhone with Unsane and he does so again with his new film High Flying Bird, also shot on an iPhone 8.
Based on a screenplay from Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird is to basketball what Moneyball was to baseball, a movie about the sport that almost focuses on everything except the actual playing of the sport itself. Soderbergh was once lined up to direct Moneyball, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to take another stab at this sort of material, but this time doing it on his own terms with Netflix, his new partner in crime.
High Flying Bird focuses on an NBA lockout, where the owners and players are at a dispute as to how they should split profits between each other, with the owners seemingly making out like bandits. The players have to split the same 50% profit with hundreds of other players, while the owners only have to share it with 29 other “rich old white guys.”
Our perspective of this situation is that of high-profile sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland, who pitched the story idea to Soderbergh, which turned into McCraney’s script) who is trying to manage his new rookie client Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) who is frustrated that his big moment has come during the unfortunate time of a lockout. With financial instability setting in for the young Scott, as well as Burke and his sports agency headed by David Starr (Zachary Quinto), Ray needs to find a solution to this lockout and do so quickly. He gets some help from his former assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz of Deadpool 2), former youth coach and community leader Spence (Bill Duke) and NBA players rep Myra (The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn).
It will certainly help to have a fluid understanding of the NBA rules and jargon, and even though Soderbergh and McCraney don’t spoon feed anything, it’s still very possible to understand High Flying Bird without being a basketball fan. At its core, Soderbergh is questioning the way those in a position of power treat those who they profit off of and who should have more control of their agency when it comes to the profit margins that they themselves are essentially responsible for. You see, these are much deeper themes than just jump shots and pick and rolls. This is a film that takes a look at capitalism and race relations and everything in-between.
The world of High Flying Bird is a very fast-paced and talky one, with McCraney’s screenplay flashing shades of Aaron Sorkin and helped by Soderbergh’s kinetic camerawork, no doubt feeling freed with the abilities that come from filming with a much smaller device than he’s used to. There is no use of score, which allows Soderbergh to frame the dialect as if you’re right alongside these characters, no emotional cues on how to feel or which way to lean. It is amazing to see how much that Soderbergh is able to pull out of using an iPhone for a Hollywood production, although it’s hard to ignore its shortcomings during low-light settings.
The smart screenplay doesn’t spoon feed anything to its audience and like its main character Ray, the film is three steps ahead of its audience, almost akin to the big “aha” reveals in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s heist films. The reveals and conversations happen so quickly and are delivered in almost coded language that it can be easy to miss some of the subtleties upon the first viewing. It’s a film that will benefit from a few rewatches to piece it all together again and find the little hints that you missed out on that now seem so obvious.
André Holland, having previously worked with Soderbergh on The Knick, absolutely shines as the leading man, playing a smart calculating and cool sports agent with all the confidence that such a role demands. Zazie Beetz equally shines as Sam, as does co-star Melvin Gregg, who surprised me with his acting abilities, as I only had previously seen him on the now-defunct app Vine. It was good to see Bill Duke given such a thoughtful role again, along with some strong supporting roles for Kyle MacLachlan (playing a version of New York Knicks owner James Dolan), Zachary Quinto, and Jeryl Prescott.
Say what you want about Soderbergh’s decision to use the same device that most people use to find local hookups or play matching games on to shoot his feature film, but it proves that truly anything is possible. If anything, it shows that all you really need is a good script of a story worth telling and capable actors who are able to bring it to life in a thoughtful and entertaining fashion.