By: Steve Pulaski
Director Steven Soderbergh has long been featuring three distinct elements in his films: heists, criticism of institutions, and experimentation. Among his most recent ventures, Logan Lucky was a southern-fried comedy about a group of underestimated, lowly hicks who pulled off an impossible crime with low expectations of them on their side. In Unsane, he mined a story about the vulnerability of women and compounded it by justifying the rampant institutional distrust many of them harbor by infusing his narrative with difficult themes revolving around stalking, mental illness, and sexual assault. Now, with High Flying Bird — his latest, a straight-to-Netflix offering — he flexes his muscles and reliable fundamentals into a complex, well-written examination of NBA politics that is gripping from the first frame.
Being that High Flying Bird was released on a week any half-in-tuned sports fan was inundated with around-the-clock coverage of the imminent, yet still to-be-determined, NBA trade of New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers makes this the most emphatically timely film I can think of, in recent time. The Pelicans' front office petty handling of the situation, the Lakers' naked desperation for a complementary piece to LeBron James, and the national media and fans either supporting or condemning Davis shows a stark contrast between the perception of the NBA and the bitter reality. The league is widely perceived as being player-driven and star-friendly; that's why a third of the league always appears to be trying only to win roughly 15 games in a season in order to obtain the next superstar. The increased mobility of players picking and choosing their desired destination only amplifies this. But like all professional sports, it's a league of billionaire owners and shot-callers who would prefer their talent keep being talent while they make all the decisions that matter.
For a film that's only shots of basketball courts come from out-of-focus TVs in the background or a rinky-dink court at a local community center, High Flying Bird is as compelling as any sports film in the last several years. Set amidst an NBA lockout, we meet Ray (Moonlight's André Holland), an embittered New York-based agent trying to keep his newest client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), on the right financial track. A high-round draft pick, set to play for New York and finally start making decent dollars once the lockout is lifted, Erick fell prey to a shady loan-shark and has already gotten himself in hot water with poor money-management — money he doesn't yet have. Ray's preference of working with rookies upsets his handsome boss (Zachary Quinto), who sees them as little besides green, financially irresponsible punks.
Ray desperately needs the NBA season to resume, and much of the film focuses on him quickly pacing through lavish high-rise hallways talking to the people who can make that happen. One of whom is Myra (Sonja Sohn in a strong, snippy performance), the Players Association rep who is clashing with the league's abundance of codger owners and their mouthpieces, symbolized by Kyle MacLachlan. While trying to keep Erick on the right track, Ray finds himself trying to extinguish the flames of his talent's "Twitter beef" with Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), a future teammate of Erick's, over their different basketball upbringings (Erick's "streetball" experience is dichotomous from Jamero's prep-school, "organized ball" lifestyle afforded by the wealth of his "lawnmower mother," who also serves as Jamero's agent). He tries this until he eventually sees opportunity in their antics; opportunity that, if only for a moment, can take the power from the league's hands.
Frequently in Ray's ear are the wise words of Spence (Bill Duke), a grizzled former player who is now coaching high school, trying to instill into the new generation the primary reason the NBA decided to integrate: the need to control black athletes. Spence — whose words of wisdom are expertly rationed and sprinkled throughout the film — remarks, at one point, that in the NBA's reliance on owners and general managers controlling their players like chess pieces, they've "invented a game on top of a game," and we're all just trying to pass "GO" and make a hell of a lot more than $200.
In less than 90 minutes, Soderbergh and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) craft a dense depiction of back-door negotiations that are a necessary evil to the NBA world we know and embrace today. Soderbergh continues his experimental tactics by shooting the film entirely on an iPhone 8 with a wide-angle lens, almost exactly what he did with his previous film,Unsane. His images are crisp and refined, but his scenes bear a feeling of immediacy in narrative and style. It was another wise decision from a director who has made many over his long career.
Always one to coach actors and get the best from even those with less experience, Soderbergh gets the best from his terrific group of talent, namely from Holland and Gregg, whose performances feel naturalistic to their setting. Also strong is Zazie Beetz, of Atlanta and Deadpool 2 fame, who plays Ray's former assistant and Erick's sort-of girlfriend, and Duke, who I must reiterate, is used sparingly but effectively and when absolutely needed for the screenplay's sake.
Interspersed in the film are one-on-ones with three current NBA players: Reggie Jackson of the Detroit Pistons, Karl Anthony-Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz. These relatively young faces of an unfathomably large brand speak on their experiences, all capable of being summarized by the mantra "grow up and grow up fast" when it comes to dealing with the lofty expectations, financial pressures, and looming drama that is the NBA. Their words add to the film, and make you yearn for a longer, possible short-film that features all their words of wisdom (and I'm not talking about a postscript Broke-style documentary either, when it's all too late).
Soderbergh's High Flying Bird is impressive on many fronts. From its deluge of strong performances and immersive look at the grinding gears that keep the NBA running, it has the potential to remind (or rather inform) many that we're currently in the middle of a groundbreaking time in professional sports. The players have always been the center of attention; no one collects cards and buys shirts/jerseys for GMs and owners. The revolution for professional athletes is nigh, only we might be talking more about an "emancipation" in this case.