Netflix’s attempt to control every second of our attention and free time continued this weekend with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird” (2019).
The film takes place over a span of 72 hours as super sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) attempts to help end a labor dispute between professional basketball owners and their players.
Essentially, there is no standing collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players, and so the players are holding out and refusing to play until there is a new agreement. However, after 25 weeks of holding out lower level players, agents like Ray Burke are starting to live paycheck to paycheck. Both sides are dying to reconcile but neither wants to cave into to the other’s economic demands.
Despite the narrative being fictional, the film is intercut with interviews from real life professional basketball players who all speak on their experiences in the National Basketball Association (NBA), which serve as real life testimony that supports much of the film’s fictional plot and argument.
With “High Flying Bird,” Soderbergh maintains his status as one of Hollywood’s best directors, known for mixing popular cinema with the avant-garde. It is so rare to see a director tackle so many different sub-genres, such as heist films, romantic comedies and now sports film with “High Flying Board.” More importantly, Soderbergh continues to be at the forefront of film production, shooting “High Flying Bird” entirely on an iPhone 8. Though Soderbergh is not the first prominent director to film on an iPhone (Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” (2015) gets credit for this), nor is it his first film shot in this method (he shot “Unsane” (2018) on an iPhone 7s), “High Flying Bird” is arguably his biggest iPhone film to date.
Soderbergh’s attempts to push the boundaries of filmmaking are admirable, but some scenes in “High Flying Bird” are clearly lacking because of the noticeable lighting issues that come with iPhone videography. Whenever outdoor or natural lighting is in a scene, the shot contains a blinding white light that makes the image look slightly indecipherable and awkward. In previous works, Soderbergh sculpted light and color very effectively, and it would have been fascinating to see that again in this film had it not been for its technical limitations.
Frankly, that’s the only complaint that can be made about “High Flying Bird.” It does contain the classic tropes of some of his past works, yet it feels radicalized given the plot of the film, and as a viewer it allows you to connect to and root for the characters. His style is incredibly entertaining as a viewer; the stakes are always clear and the payoff leaves you satisfied.
The brilliance of the film is mostly due to the writing and the actors’ performances. Sonja Sohn, Kyle MacLachlan and Bill Duke all contribute greatly in their roles. Each role functions to explain the different tiers of labor management, from coach to owner. Every character has their own background story and motives for resolving the lockout.
The two lead roles, played by Holland and Zazie Beetz, are the most impressive. Holland taps into the plotting charismatic lead role, reminiscent of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) in “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001). Desperation pushes Holland’s character to seize an opportunity, and Holland is too charming not to root for.
Beetz also elevates her character beyond the typical female sidekick. Clever and determined, Beetz’s character is no less desperate to capitalize on the lockout than anyone else, and commands respect just as well.
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney of “Moonlight” (2016), the script for “High Flying Bird” is electric. The film opens with Ray (Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) at lunch and launches us into the story. In a film that focuses so heavily on power, scenes between parties with different interests are fascinating.
What makes this film most relevant is the plot itself. Looking at the scope of the NBA, the film is incredibly pertinent to the cultural moment. Players have more agency now than ever in the sport’s history thanks to its popularity and the power of social media. Last week, NBA superstar Kevin Durant went on a rant attacking the media and how they cover the sport, and “High Flying Bird” perfectly exemplifies his point. Basketball players do not need intermediaries controlling their sport or how they speak about it to the public like they used to — if they wanted to, they could take their skills and voice them directly to the masses.
Zooming out through the plot and its message of employee power, “High Flying Bird” touches on the long complicated history of the capitalism and how it allows those in power to control blue-collar workers, and how white people have profited off the labor of predominantly African-American athletes. The film contains a motif in which African-American characters make references to slavery and then apologize for saying them, commenting on the ties of the language of labor and value to slavery. The film also ends with Beetz’s character reading Harry Edwards’ “The Revolt of the Black Athlete” and then telling Gregg’s character, star player Erick Scott, that he should read it too, which could be read as a direct message to real life professional athletes.
With an amazing cast and writing, supported by great directing, “High Flying Bird” seems like the perfect fit for our revolutionary moment.