Review: High Flying Bird (2019)


Steven Soderbergh has always experimented more than most major Hollywood directors, but even by his own standards, High Flying Bird is ahead-of-the-curve. Independently produced on a low budget (around two million dollars), shot entirely on an iPhone, and released on Netflix, this drama circumvents the usual studios and gatekeepers of mainstream entertainment. And it does so to tell a story about another individual, André Holland’s crafty NBA agent, Ray Burke, who circumvents the power brokers of his industry during an NBA lockout. It’s an example of disruptive methods telling a story of disruptive negotiating. It’s a winning combination of form and content, even if the film doesn’t entirely satisfy as a sports drama, since, by its own admission, it’s not about the game, but about the “game above the game.”

The story follows Ray, the agent for Number One draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who uses the growing star-power of players in the league to gain leverage over the league office and players’ union by using social media to manipulate the rules and threaten a series of one-on-one basketball showdowns that don’t break the letter of league contracts, but certainly don’t adhere to their spirit.

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who penned the play that provided the basis for the Oscar-winning Moonlight, High Flying Bird is crafted as a series of one-on-one power plays, usually two-hander scenes where characters duel each other verbally and try to wrest the upper hand from the other. In essence, it takes the one-on-one basketball conceit at the centre of the film and applies that style to almost all of its scenes. Thus, it’s theatrical, full of florid language, archetypal metaphors, and has a mirroring narrative structure. Much like Moonlight, it’s too structurally neat, but it’s also satisfying in how sharp the thematic focus is. And the dialogue crackles, especially when delivered by Holland, who turns in an impressive, charismatic performance that’s more calculated than you initially realize; he’s a bit like a black Danny Ocean, charismatic, bold, and more in control that you’d assume from his external circumstances.

This touch of Ocean’s Eleven is no accident. For all the theatricality of the film’s structure and the cutting-edge nature of its delivery, High Flying Bird borrows a lot from heist narratives (which makes sense considering Soderbergh is one of Hollywood’s best heist movie filmmakers). This means that High Flying Bird is ultimately a generic work, one that uses its formal innovation much as a basketball player uses as pump fake: as a feint for a conventionally-satisfying payoff. The visual form of the film captures this point better than you’d initially think.

In theory, the use of an iPhone to shoot a Hollywood-quality drama is revolutionary. Soderbergh had already done it before with Unsane and the format allows him to provide coverage that wouldn’t normally happen in a Hollywood film. For instance, the first scene contains at least five different master shots and constantly repositions itself around the characters to reflect the power dynamic at play, a result of the freedom Soderbergh is allowed by filming with such a lightweight, small camera. However, Soderbergh does not do anything radical with the iPhone format other than utilize its geographic freedom and wide angle lens. He does not tell the story through camera phones nor does he use the format to explore our digital selves, the way a low-budget found footage horror film would. Aside from a few shaky glimpses of the one-on-one showdown between Erick Scott and another hyped draftee that we see through Ray’s own phone, we never actually get an image from Soderbergh’s smartphone that resembles the images we see through our own smartphones. So, for all the innovation of shooting on a phone, Soderbergh never refashions the way we watch movies to accommodate the format; he mostly shoots a movie the way he normally would, with some added freedom afforded to shot construction.

This isn’t a bad thing. There is enough heft in McCraney’s examination of the racial and labour politics behind the NBA and in Holland’s performance to make the film substantive, even if its innovation is more smokescreen than revelation. And considering that Soderbergh made the film in a truly independent manner, free of any studio obligation or interference, and delivered it directly to our own smartphones by way of Netflix, I’d say High Flying Bird is a convincing success, one that I’m more than grateful to have so easily available. It’s a confident pick and roll with the shot dropping where it should.

7 out of 10

High Flying Bird (2019, United States)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; starring André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan, Bill Duke.