Oh, boy. You know what time it is? It’s time to roll the dice once again and check out the latest film from a heralded director to go straight to Netflix with virtually no oversight! It feels like we’ve been talking about movie s like that a whole lot lately, apparently because Netflix has really gone all in with their bid for legitimacy, hoping to draw in a stable of proven directors with the allowance to go completely hog-wild and make whatever kind of crazy movie they want without having to worry about studio interference. And, as we’ve seen, that concept has led to some very hit or miss films. And, lately it’s been pretty firmly in the “Miss” category. But, everyone seemed to be optimistic about the latest film to be formed in this mold, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird. Which isn’t to say that the movie sounded like a sure-fire success. At least for me. I’ve generally enjoyed all of the Soderbegh movies I’ve seen, but he’s never really been a director that I garner a lot of anticipation for. So, when I heard that he was making a movie for Netflix that was about contract negotiations for NBA players, and that it was show entirely on iPhones, I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to check it out. But, I have a sickness and need to watch any new film I can get my hands on, so I gave it a shot. And you know what? I loved this movie.
High Flying Bird follows a successful sports agent named Ray Burke, trying to do right by his clients and stay afloat in his tough business during one of the worst possible times to be involved in professional sports. A lockout. The NBA is currently not playing games thanks to a dispute between the player’s association and the corporate overlords and agents, leading to a lot of uncertainty for the players and their agents. Ray in particular is having to wrangle Erick Scott, a talented new player who is supposed to be beginning his rookie year, but is instead terrified that he’s not going to be able to live without getting paid. Ray starts doing his best to keep Erick happy and under his management when he gets the word that if the lockout continues much longer his position as his agency may be put into question. So, with no other options left to him, Ray decides that his only hope is to get the lockdown to end as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely, because the owners and the player’s association are dead-set against cooperating, meaning Ray’s going to have to get a little creative in order to end things.
Working with his assistant Sam, Ray gets it in his head that he can use Erick to change the entire basketball paradigm, because Erick’s contract hasn’t technically kicked in since the season hasn’t begun, putting him in a sort of legal gray area. And, with that established Ray begins hustling all around the city, setting up a truly insane idea. He and Sam manage to start a Twitter feud between Erick and another start player who is in a similar situation, manipulating things behind the scenes so that the two men eventually come into conflict with each other at a charity basketball game, leading to an off-the-books one-on-one game that gets recorded by some kids and leaked onto the internet. It becomes a viral sensation, and it starts to get bandied about that the structure of the NBA may be antiquated, and that if the player’s association and the owners can’t get it together the entire league should just be shuttered and something new should rise from its ashes. And, as that idea starts to gain favor, and Ray begins setting up meetings all around town for this new kind of professional basketball, the pressure is finally put on the people in charge of the lockdown. They end up finding a compromise, and the lockdown is ended in a way that puts more power in the hands of the players, giving Ray everything he wanted. He even’s placed Sam in a position of power at the player’s association, ready to continue changing the game of basketball in the future, and earning himself quite a bit of security both professionally and financially.
I wasn’t expecting that much from this movie going in. I’m not really a big sports guy, and basketball is perhaps the sport that I have the absolute least interest in and familiarity with. I’m also completely unsold on the idea of filmmakers using iPhones to shoot their movies, something that is probably going to increasingly become a borderline Luddite concern. So, I figured this movie wasn’t going to do much for me. But, I was pleasantly surprised. And, I probably shouldn’t have been as worried as I was. Soderbergh is a hell of a director, and even when he makes a movie that doesn’t work for me personally it’s impossible to deny that he seems to know what he’s going. So, leave it to Soderbergh to create a story about contract disputes shot on goddamn cell-phone be this engaging. A lion’s share of that credit probably has to go to the performers as well, especially the two leads. I talked about her when I wrote about Deadpool 2, but Zazie Beetz has a hell of a screen presence, and I really loved her as Sam, providing a great contrast to Ray, calling him on all of his shit but also coming across as a complete equal in his wheelings and dealings, becoming a student who is ready to surpass the master. But it’s Andre Holland who rightfully steals the show as Ray, just strutting around and playing every side against the other, all while tossing out amazing monologues like it’s nothing, showing off the stellar script from Tarrell Alvin McCraney. This isn’t a particularly flashy movie, mostly comprising of a bunch of shots of people talking in offices, but Holland is able to make it all come to life, revealing one of this movie’s greatest strengths.
Because it’s not really just a dry story about contracts and logistics in a professional sports league. That’s all there, and you’d have to ask someone who actually knows something about the NBA to see if anything in this film is remotely accurate. What really made this movie work, and what made me absolutely love it was that this movie was a goddamn caper. I should have expected this twist from the fact that Soderbergh was directing it, but it completely caught me off guard, and I was so pleasantly surprised by this movie. By the end of the film the movie this most reminded me of ended up being Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film that could have been much more slow paced and dry, but decided to tell its story through the lens of a heist, making it infinitely more interesting. I don’t know if I’d have liked a movie about an agent trying to disrupt the structure of the NBA if it was played completely straight, but the decision to take that story and instead focus it on Ray as he manipulates everyone around him, playing people off each other while never fully laying all of his cards on the table worked wonders for me. I love movies about heists, capers, and grifters, but movies like High Flying Bird remind us that that plot structure doesn’t only need to be propping up a story about crime, that it could be telling any sort of story, are magical. Anything becomes more interesting if it’s told as a caper, and that idea has been confirmed by this movie, which made me give a crap about a basketball story.
High Flying Bird was written by Tarrel Alvin McCraney, directed by Steven Soderbergh, and released by Netflix, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk