‘High Flying Bird’, Netflix’s New Basketball Drama, Is Incredible
High Flying Bird, Netflix’s brainy new movie about a brash sports agent trying to leverage an NBA lockout to his advantage, is a good reminder that it’s fun to watch movies about smart people. When film characters are smart, they surprise us, because we can’t predict their moves. As a rule of thumb, smart characters only show up in truly interesting movies, because dumb filmmakers can’t write smart characters.
Luckily, High Flying Bird was directed and written by two gifted filmmakers: Steven Soderbergh and Tarell Alvin McCraney (the co-writer of Moonlight and the author of the play upon which it’s based). They’ve made an unusual sports movie, in which the sport is almost never played onscreen — but then why would it be in the midst of a lockout?
Instead, Soderbergh and McCraney follow the nuances of what one character describes as “the game on top of a game.” With NBA owners (represented in the film by Kyle MacLachlan) locking out their players while they renegotiate a television deal, agent Ray Burke (Moonlight’s André Holland) works around the clock to keep his clients happy, most importantly rookie sensation Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). Rookies like Erick feel the monetary difficulties of a lockout far more acutely than veterans who’ve spent years collecting million-dollar checks, which means Ray needs to figure out a way to bring the owners and players to an agreement quickly. And he’ll need the aid of his assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) and the head of the players’ union (Sonja Sohn) to do it.
Exactly what Ray Burke plans to do, and then how he goes about doing it, would venture into the realm of spoilers. Soderbergh structures High Flying Bird a bit like one of his Ocean’s heist movies, with Ray always three steps ahead of the other characters and the audience, while the film races to keep up with him. Sometimes it becomes a literal race to keep up with him, with the camera — a consumer iPhone that Soderbergh wielded himself — chasing after Ray as he prowls the hallways of various agencies and organizations. The iPhone’s image isn’t as refined or as colorful as a professional film camera, but it does give Soderbergh a lot of flexibility and nimbleness, both of which he uses to give visual energy to what is largely a very talky film. (The presence of cell phones also factor heavily into one key plot twist, which only makes them an even more appropriate camera choice.)
With all of those words flowing, it helps to have talented actors to handle the monologues and conversations. High Flying Bird has a stellar ensemble. Holland is an ideal lead for this story; poker-faced during backroom dealings, but weary and sensitive in the moments that Ray’s hidden motivations begin to poke through his veneer of professionalism. And the great character actor Bill Duke has one of his best parts in years as Spence, a basketball guru who offers most of the film’s insights into the game and its inherent inequities.
What Ray proposes as a solution to Erick’s financial problems is nothing less than a pro sports revolution, and when he calls himself a “disruptor” looking to rewrite the rules of this unfair system, it’s easy to see Netflix itself — which is mentioned by name a few times in the film when contract talks turn to digital streaming rights — as one of High Flying Bird’s subtextual subjects. Ray’s run-and-gun style of negotiation; working on the fly, improvising heavily, and then getting the word out to the public through unconventional channels and social media, sure sounds an awful lot like what Soderbergh did in shooting this little film on a phone and then releasing it online. The internet is changing the games on top of a lot of games.
I suppose if a movie can be shot on an iPhone you might as well watch it on one. Still, I do wonder what Netflix’s stereotypical audience of people playing Candy Crush while occasionally glancing at the TV in the distance will think of this movie. The dialogue pours out fast and thick, with very little spoon-fed exposition. No one stops to explain exactly how the lockout started or what precisely needs to be done to stop it. Distracted viewers could get lost and lose interest very quickly.
On the other hand, being available on Netflix means if you do get drawn into High Flying Bird you can watch it over and over again for one monthly price, and I suspect this is the sort of movie that rewards return visits. With its blistering pace and non-stop dialogue, you’ll likely miss things the first time through; I know I did. But I already want to go back and watch it again to dig into the details of Ray’s contractual maneuvers and McCraney’s sharp wordplay. Whether High Flying Bird is perfect for streaming or doomed to obscurity because of it, I’m delighted I got to watch it and spend 90 minutes in the company of some very intelligent people.
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