REVIEW: High Flying Bird (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of High Flying Bird — Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh rose to directorial stardom with Erin Brockovich and his Ocean’s-heist trilogy. In 2018, Soderbergh’s low-budget thriller Unsane was released to strong critical reception. What made that film so interesting was the fact that the entirety of the film was shot on iPhone 7 Plus cameras. Now, in 2019, Netflix has given Soderbergh a worldwide audience for his second iPhone-film High Flying Bird, a sports drama centered around an NBA lockout.

Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird follows sports agent Ray Burke (played by André Holland), who is almost always one step ahead of the game, during the 25th week of an NBA lockout. The Players Association and the League have, in their disagreements, dried up the funds of NBA talents — Burke’s clients — everywhere, and things are especially dire for rookie Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg) who Burke initially scolds for financial irresponsibility in the film’s first scene.

Over the course of the film, Burke loses an employee and his job security, but, when things are the most problematic for him, his client, and his firm, he decides to do his best Robin Hood impersonation and take the game from the owners and back into the hands of the players, at least for a moment. Thus passing the ball to those who know how to use it.

The ultimate goal isn’t necessarily to take the League by the throat, rather Burke, who walks with a swagger and a furious pace, wants to orchestrate a bit of a show to help those who do not own their own image. In true Soderberghian fashion, High Flying Bird has heist film elements, and it is the kind of film that is more interested in disruption and illusion than taking something that isn’t owned by you. This film is all about starting a revolution — lighting a fire under much too comfortable industry leaders.

Reportedly shot on iPhone 8 cameras over the course of two weeks, High Flying Bird doesn’t look like a slick, big-budget production, but it is a marked improvement on the look of Soderbergh’s first iPhone film — Unsane — which had a decidedly ugly color palette. It is kind of perfect that a film shot on an iPhone is on a service that allows for it to be watched on your phone easily, even though it deserves your full attention. The film merges black-and-white interviews with actual NBA players with the narrative so as to give more context to the struggle of someone like Melvin Gregg’s character — it works almost seamlessly, eventually.

Based on a screenplay from Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird is a short, smart, and stimulating drama about disruptors challenging institutions and money men. As such, McCraney’s story, though it is a sports drama, must’ve appealed very strongly to the studio-frustrated Steven Soderbergh who, in handing this film to Netflix after having shot it on an iPhone, is challenging the status quo — something Netflix, who is name-dropped once or twice in the film, knows more about than most.

The film is focused on the ‘game on top of the game,’ thus referring to the injustices and inequalities of the NBA and the ownership of players, their identity, and image, the ownership of which is likened multiple times to slavery. Whenever this comparison is made Bill Duke’s character demands that the speaker utters the words: “I love the Lord and all His black people.”

Aided by a strong ensemble, McCraney’s dialogue is almost Sorkinesque as certain characters walk-and-talk with a strong sense of intelligence. No one brings the words to life better than a remarkably vigorous André Holland, giving the best performance I’ve seen him give thus far in his career, who doesn’t just power through the tongue-twisting dialogue. Holland elegantly brings McCraney’s script to life, and Soderbergh’s film is elevated because of him. Holland’s knowing smirks are believable, and Jerry Maguire wishes he was as intelligent as Ray Burke, though, in my opinion, the film fumbles his intriguing backstory.

The film doesn’t overstay its welcome, you don’t need to be a die-hard basketball film to understand it, and it is perfect for Netflix as its runtime, intelligent motor-mouth characters, heist film elements, and strong pacing made me want to rewatch it immediately.

It is a sportless sports film about image rights, labor, and race untangled by a whip-smart screenplay from Tarell Alvin McCraney whose work is brought to life with relatively cheap but invigorating filmmaking from a household name director. A thought-provoking, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it heist-like sports drama, High Flying Bird is Steven Soderbergh’s version of Ballers and Moneyball, and I loved almost every minute of it.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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