With respect to the man’s extensive body of work that sees him constantly challenging himself and, particularly in the years leading up to his planned retirement, trying things way out of his comfort zone, Steven Soderbergh is at his best when he makes heist movies. There’s his iconic Ocean’s trilogy, of course, and his unfairly underseen comeback feature Logan Lucky (one of 2017’s very finest films), but you can even see traces of the heist movie mechanics in works as disparate as Erin Brockovich (Erin’s quest to bring down the energy company carrying shades of Danny Ocean trying to get one over on Terry Benedict), The Informant! (a heist movie in the world of whistleblowing and if the heister was a dumbass), and even Haywire (David Holmes’ fantastic but ill-fitting score).
You can even read Soderbergh’s recent flip to iPhone-based filming as another extension on his much-documented adoration of the ideals inherent to the genre and their parallels with filmmaking; guerrilla productions knocked out in a few days with passion and immediacy outside the hands of micromanaging mass-market studio executives.
High Flying Bird, the first of two Netflix Soderbergh releases planned for 2019 – the other reunites him with writer Scott Z. Burns for an expose on the Panama Papers scandal – is a heist movie. It may not seem so on the surface, being an entirely dialogue-driven piece about a fictional NBA lockout and the backroom wheeling and dealing going on in an attempt to break a racist and capitalist stalemate that hilariously cuts away from the action the moment a game of basketball actually does erupt, but Soderbergh and Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney have managed to sugar the pill and pump up the tempo by structuring the film like a heist movie.
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Set over 72 hours, fast-talking hotshot sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) sets about trying to break the lockout caused by the league’s disinterested and greedy White owners (mainly personified by a smarmy Kyle MacLachlan) squeezing every spare cent they can out of the Player’s Association (headed up by a blindingly good Sonja Sohn), securing a financial future for the #1 draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), ready to drop his ass, his own shaky position at a downsizing agency also lacking in revenue thanks to the lockout, and accompanied by the assistant (Zazie Beetz) who technically doesn’t work for him anymore (sensing as she does a sinking ship) yet admires and respects him too much to not stick around and see what he’s got planned.
So, yes, there’s something a little Danny Ocean in Ray’s effortless charisma and ability to subtly play basically everyone to his advantage even when it seems like he’s been outfoxed one way or the other. There’s a real zip to McCraney’s screenplay which rounds out his cast of characters in enjoyably offbeat ways that deepen their comradery and history together: Erick’s enforced celibacy prior to a game (which crops back up at the most inopportune time for a phenomenally delivered gag), local youth basketball coach Spencer (a scene-stealing Bill Duke) and his militant and often-hypocritical refusal to tolerate the invocation of slavery as a metaphor in any way, even Ray’s semi-tragic backstory overcomes its potential genericism thanks to precisely how it affects his character and the way Holland (who is just fantastic in this) pitches his performance.
In many respects, High Flying Bird rather resembles Moneyball – a film which Soderbergh, fittingly, was once attached to direct – in its focus more on the business side of sports dramas with minimal on-pitch action. But McCraney’s script not only doesn’t feature any actual basketball, it doesn’t seem to have much interest in the sport period. Instead, he wants to examine the institution of the National Basketball Association that has been constructed around the sport, the ways in which it acts as yet another vessel for White male capitalist control over something that theoretically should be a pure and simple exercise.
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Remarkably, McCraney manages this exploration in a way that is integral to the film but never once tips over into speechifying. You’ll never mistake the film’s intentions – Spencer explains in his Back Court Day speech how basketball in America integrated primarily because White people were becoming extremely insecure over Black people playing the game better, another form of control, whilst I’m sure to not be the only one with a copy of Harry Edwards’ Revolt of the Black Athlete on order after viewing – but it prefers to underplay its hand. The viewer likely already knows that rich White guys will gladly cut their own noses off so long as it spites minorities in some way just by looking at *gestures towards all of recorded history*, and the benignity of its portrayal here makes that brief stretch of time where Ray snatches control of the game for himself all the more satisfying.
That said, such underplaying does also cause High Flying Bird to come off as somewhat minor for much of its runtime. Whilst I appreciate a brisk 90-minute flick in this era of even Marvel movies threatening to reach double that length, Bird intentionally halts its momentum pretty much as soon as said steam has been picked up. I get why, the little mini-revolution Ray is trying to mastermind really was only meant to be a short sharp magnesium-level shock to the system, and there is something much more honest about McCraney’s message of the fleeting nature and comparatively small-scale of change in our capitalist society.
But his and Soderbergh’s steadfast commitment to only the backrooms and upper floors of a select few players in the story in such a compressed timespan – which, more problematically, isn’t actually communicated all that well; an eyebrow was raised Rock-style during a climactic flashback to the start of the narrative with “48 hours earlier” attached – can at times cause things to feel constrained. Limited by scope or budget or filmmaking technique in a way that lets the air out a little of the stakes and makes certain elements of the narrative harder to define.
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Still, more potential is fulfilled than isn’t. That also goes for the iPhone cinematography, shot under one of Soderbergh’s aliases as is tradition. Whilst there are instances where things can look (for lack of a better phrase) off – certain motion shots have that awkward artificial stabilising effect that causes a slightly drunk look, early scenes with Ray and his boss (a cameoing Zachary Quinto) noticeably bounce when they’re supposed to be static from desk movements, colour-grading can at-times be unflattering to the predominately Black cast (although that’s an industry-wide issue rather than one endemic to iPhone movies) – this is largely a massive improvement from Unsane. It also better fits the material than it did Unsane, with lots of wide-angle shots of upmarket offices and fish-eye-type effects on many a close-up designed to bring the viewer into these often-secretive dealings like a fly on the wall.
At times it feels slightly insurgent and mildly invasive, like with a conversation between Ray and one of the team’s owners set in a sauna, which communicates the insular nature of the highest echelons of the NBA and Ray’s manoeuvring through it all perfectly. Much snark can be made about how a movie shot on an iPhone looks better than the vast majority of other Netflix originals which were shot on “proper” cameras, but, as with Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Soderbergh manages this by playing to the technology’s strengths instead of trying to contort them into a style ill-suited.
High Flying Bird, then, is Soderbergh simultaneously stretching himself – save for Che, this is arguably the most non-White movie the man has ever made and he’s dove headfirst into the accompanying subject matter, plus continuing to test out the viability of his filmmaking on iPhones – and relaxing like he’s got nothing to prove for the first time in a while. He wanted to make an incredibly solid and never less than engaging drama, and that’s exactly what he’s made.
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It never scrapes towards true excellency by design and I genuinely admire that. Not just because Soderbergh is one of the great American filmmakers where even his misfires are compulsively watchable, but because I feel that deliberate underplaying may cause the film to grow on me as I get further from viewing.
Hell, I’m writing this review four days after viewing and I kinda already want to go back and watch it again, which is the power of a solid minor drama like this one. Especially when they are so tightly made, wittily penned, and charismatically acted.