Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Kyle MacLachlan
It’s worth noting when approaching High Flying Bird that Steven Soderbergh’s name was hovering around Moneyball before it got passed to Bennett Miller. Some ten years later, the indie perennial has finally made his own iteration, filmed on an iPhone and distributed via Netflix. The streaming giant is a shrewd choice for the film given the turns of its plot, which exemplifies how the evolving information age is affecting all sorts of industries, including the sports industry.
The focus here isn’t baseball but basketball. Moonlight breakout André Holland stars as Ray Burke, a New York agent whose business is downsizing. He has his eyes on prospective NBA player Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who is presently in a Twitterstorm with rival Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley). In a move engineered by Umber’s mother/manager, the two turn up at the same charity event and are maneuvered into settling their differences with a 1-on-1. Soderbergh cuts away from the confrontation. This isn’t that movie. Instead, it is about the machinations of management before and after. The PR and representation game.
When a kid in the crowd films the tussle (on an iPhone, no less), a snippet of the event goes viral. With both players on a lockout from playing imposed by the NBA, Ray takes advantage of the event in order to change the nature of the game, or at least improve his diminished position.
High Flying Bird is a far more successful foray than that last in Soderberg’s ‘iPhone phase’; Unsane. The material is more interesting, more specific, and better written. Indeed, the script by Tarell Alvin McCraney has the rat-a-tat punch of Moneyball‘s Aaron Sorkin… if Sorkin could more convincingly write with more than one voice. The opening meeting between Ray and Erick showcases these motormouth tendencies terrifically. Holland is superb as Ray, handling these dialogue marathons with suave aplomb.
Considering the nature of the story told – a series of meetings, essentially – the crispness of the iPhone shooting adds a gratifying level of immediacy to proceedings. A savvy script of strategy talk and business smarts will only get you so far, so Soderbergh’s choice invigorates the chitchat. The film arrives in washed out tones of blue. A credits-free opening sequence set to the song from which the film takes its title also allows Soderbergh to romanticise the city of New York. Ray walks between skyscrapers in chilly winter light, and its honestly quite beautiful.
The supporting cast – as one has come to expect from this director – are uniformly excellent. Zazie Beetz shows she’s up for much more than playing a Deadpool sidekick, drawing attention here as Ray’s faithful PA Sam. Kyle MacLachlan makes much of just a few scenes as sneering NBA agent David. And The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn does fine work as rival agent Myra, even if her back story seems to have been wholesale plagiarised from her former hit show.
The film is lightly peppered with cuts to real NBA stars (including Donovan Mitchell and Karl-Anthony Towns) talking candidly about their own initiations into the league. It adds a touch of veracity to the film, one supposes, but it also feels curiously unnecessary, drawing unlikely comparison to similar sections of HBO’s war series Band Of Brothers. Nevertheless, High Flying Bird does its best to present joining the NBA as a battle in itself.
The main meat of the film is the conversation of how technologies like cell phones and the internet are challenging the dogmatic rules of the (conspicuously white) NBA, presented here as stuffy and monolithic. Soderbergh’s embrace of change is clear, both in his philosophical and practical approaches to experimentation over the last two decades. Yet the emotional core of the film remains a human one. With Erick running late for the charity event, Ray buys time talking to the kids sat on the bleachers. He has to improvise a speech. And though he starts off hesitantly, he winds up revealing the most about himself that we get to hear. It’s an opening in the movie and an opening into the character. It’s well written, well performed and staged with the kind of confidence one has come to expect from Soderbergh.