“High Flying Bird” Movie Review

As someone who grew up in a household with sports junkies family members, I understood more of this movie than I thought I would. I’m not even sure if that’s something I’m entirely proud of, but hey it sure added to the experience. This business-centric sports drama initially premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. Although its distributor offered to give it a limited theatrical run, the director declined as he thought it wasn’t ultimately worth it. The $2 million production was instead released worldwide on the streaming service Netflix on February 8th, 2019. It garnered some of the best reviews for the filmmaker in quite a while, some even calling it a return to form. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film was originally written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning playwright behind Moonlight. The screenplay was based on an actual lockout that occurred in 2011, and immense research was undertaken in the ensuing years. According to the director, principal photography went so fast that he assembled the first cut of the film on his laptop within a few hours after production wrapped. André Holland stars as Ray Burke, an extremely intelligent and resourceful sports agent who primarily handles basketball players. During an ongoing NBA lockout, neither he nor his clients, including top draft prospect Erick Scott, played by Melvin Gregg, are getting paid while the owners and Players’ Association union refuse to compromise. However, Burke comes up with a daring and risky plan to try and upend the system within a tight timeframe of 72 hours. And every now and then, we see actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, and Karl-Anthony Towns giving interviews, breaking down exactly how the league works for rookies. To be perfectly honest with you, Steven Soderbergh’s work as a director can be hit-or-miss for me most of the time. I absolutely love Ocean’s Eleven and some of his earlier stuff, but I’ve been iffy on his newer releases, such as Unsane. But regardless, I can definitely appreciate how he tries to approach each of his films in a brand new way, even if it isn’t entirely successful. Seeing him collaborate with the same writer behind Moonlight, a film I wholly adored back in 2016, automatically made me ecstatic with the possibilities. I was interested to see the two of them tackle the behind-the-scenes world of sports, especially since Soderbergh came so close to directing Moneyball 8 years prior. And while it feels a little too lean for its own good, High Flying Bird is still incredibly well-written and sharply acted. The best thing that I can say about this film is that it made me even more interested in the business behind sports, something I don’t usually think about that much. It’s clear that McCraney did his homework here, creating environments and scenarios with such a level of detail that it feels like he’s spent a lot of time on the court. The ideas High Flying Bird wrestles with are interesting, especially in relation to how young black athletes are frequently at the mercy of their older, white owners. Why should we put so much pressure on the public image players put out while owners like Robert Kraft get away with millions and unsettling activities? The problem is that, at just 90 minutes, it feels like some of these themes and ideas get short-shifted in favor of the protagonist’s wild plan. This being a Soderbergh film, it has the verve and personality of an Ocean’s movie that was never made, which is totally fine. But when the scenes where the central issues start kicking, it makes me wish that it was at least a half hour longer, or even a miniseries. André Holland has slowly been building an impressive resume the last few years as an actor, and he continues that here as Ray Burke. From the minute he comes on-screen, he commands your attention with his razor-edge intelligence and charisma. Meanwhile, Zazie Beetz and Bill Duke are equally good as Ray’s snappy assistant and wise mentor, respectively. Much like Ray, they’re both fully aware of the racial implications of a system like the NBA; whenever the issue of slavery is brought up, Duke’s character repeats “I love the Lord, and all His black people.” Kyle McLachlan and Glenn Fleshler are also impressive as two owners who feign concern for their players, while Sonja John is witty and shrewd as a fellow sports agent. Melvin Gregg is definitely worth mentioning as Erick Scott, one of the nation’s top draft prospects. While he may not be privy to everything that’s going on, it’s clear that he loves the game of basketball and wants nothing more than to get back on. This being a Steven Soderbergh film, the technical side of things is pretty clean and interesting. As always Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer and editor, credited for both categories as Pete Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively. Like many of his films, each scene has a static camera placed in a specific spot in the room, only moving around when needed for the characters. It also cuts between each scene and shot with purpose, replicating the high energy of the screenplay. That being said, I’m really not that convinced that this film needed to be shot on an iPhone, like his previous film Unsane. While it worked for that particular film’s psychological aspects, here, it feels too limited and narrow for the scope of the story, only allowing two characters on-screen at a time. And while some movements are quite impressive, the lack of field depth and extremely static movements can take audiences out of the experience. Still, with enough meat on the bone to generate discussion afterward, High Flying Bird‘s kinetic screenplay and performances outshine some questionable technology choices. Although I wouldn’t consider this a return to form for the director, Steven Soderbergh still shows that he’s got it and is willing to risk failure by trying new things. Not to mention the fact that he’s supported by an incredibly dense script by Tarell Alvin McCraney and an outstandingly committed cast who fully give themselves to a surprisingly topical story. Yes, it does feel like it could be a lot more, but for what it is, it’s still a riveting game to watch.

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