HIGH FLYING BIRD: MY THOUGHTS
I’ve been a Steven Soderbergh fan for a while now, something of a Soder-head if you will. One of the few blu-rays I bought for myself was a copy of Contagion, a sprawling story of how people and institutions would be impacted by a severe pandemic that sweeps the globe. Soderbergh has fascinated me, his films are filled with this electricity that gives them zip culminating in an extremely entertaining filmography. Soderbergh’s latest venture High Flying Bird is no different.
High Flying Bird tells the story of Ray Burke (Andre Holland) an agent looking to protect No 1 overall draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), during a drawn-out contract dispute between club owners and players. Over the course of three days Burke devises a strategy to disrupt the NBA and how the sport is commodified.
Soderbergh consistently in his filmography comes back to the themes of greed and power. Contagion deals with opportunists in a world plunged into chaos by a plague. Side Effects confronts the audience with a thriller which doubles as a critique of big pharma. The Ocean’s series and Logan Lucky are heist movies that ‘stick it to the man’ simply stealing from people and institutions with an excessive amount of power. High Flying Bird is cut from the same cloth.
Here we are dealing with an industry where predominantly white owners hold their predominantly black labour force at bay. Protracted talks and negotiations preventing the paychecks of some many beyond the athlete themselves. Writer McCraney presents an alternative disruption in the second and third act so satisfying ala the heists of Soderbergh movies before. Without revealing much this movie takes the simple model of two people in a room and elevates the stakes and repercussions to such a satisfying degree.
This is also a snappy film. It is quick in a way that isn’t grating but rather flows like a beautiful riff. Moving from one point to the next without the slightest puncture of hesitation. It’s talky nature only slows down to intercut with real accounts from former NBA rookies. Soderbergh is therefore able to provide us with a clear understanding of what being an athlete means.
Soderbergh has always been a fascinating figure due to how openly he discusses and experiment with distribution and promotion. A prolific producer as well as director Soderbergh constantly plays with viral and traditional marketing often avoiding the rat race that surrounds big tent-pole promotion resulting in critical successes but commercial flops.
Released by Netflix four days after Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t seen any posters or trailers for this film. This movie similarly to Soderbergh’s last two releases Unsane and Logan Lucky (both big recommends from me in their own right) also opted for unique marketing strategies. Essentially this film has fallen under the radar but in a way, this is exactly what Soderbergh wants.
Speaking of experimentation Soderbergh shoots this movie all on a smartphone. As a sentiment I love it, this movie was made on something we all have in our pockets. It plays to back to the accessibility of this movie. Released on Netflix in the hope of more eyeballs watching and now filmed on a device owned by at least 77% of Americans. Unfortunately, in practice this film could have look so much nicer shot on high quality equipment. You can tell it’s shot on a phone and is a case for better in thought than execution for me.
Spencer a Basketball youth coach, played marvellously by Bill Duke, says this when discussing why the NBA changed.
“They wanted the control of a game that we played, and we played better.”
“They created a game on top of a game.”
It gets to the heart of the story being told one which gives us the briefest of glimpses into a world where the power brokers weren’t the ones in control. The game on top of the game stops and right before we can see what a disrupted world could be the film ends.