An industrious sports agent plots to single-handedly end an NBA lockout.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, and Melvin Gregg
Review by Jon Kissel
It’s the look of High Flying Bird that forms a daring hook, but Soderbergh has such an eye that he could make a film shot through a cardboard eclipse camera look compelling. Long an early adaptor of visual technology, Soderbergh, who also shoots and edits most of his films, loses nothing by filming High Flying Bird with an iPhone, especially since much of the film’s scenes take place sitting at a desk. When he goes wider, like in a credits shot that captures a long stretch of NYC sidewalk, he’s prompting thematic cues to go with his visual ones. In that perfect frame, the camera is imperceptibly tilting the world as Ray walks from one side to the other, like he is a weight and the earth is rebalancing itself depending where he’s standing. Soderbergh’s elegance with framing means that the medium is at the behest of the vision, so camera phone or IMAX makes no difference.
Soderbergh brings this vision to life, but it’s not only his vision. As much as I admire Soderbergh, I don’t think of him as an auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson or Yorgos Lanthimos, directors who have put their own indelible stamp on their films. Soderbergh works as a superb partner to brilliant writers, unafraid of density or exposition if it’s in service of competence, which his characters so often are brimming with. His go-to writer has recently been Scott Z. Burns, who Soderbergh collaborated with on The Informant, Contagion, and Side Effects, but in High Flying Bird, a film shot through with racial politics and the people of color who espouse them, he teams up with Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney’s dense, rapid-fire script is attuned to Soderbergh’s frosty visual rhythms, making the characters sound as intelligent as Soderbergh makes them look cool.
The substance of High Flying Bird calls to mind Michael Jordan’s apocryphal aside about Republicans buying sneakers, too. Early in the film, Ray impresses upon his rookie client Erick (Melvin Gregg) that it’s basketball players who are the most effective pitchmen, a status that gives them extra power in the economic marketplace, and therefore the political one as well. Whether or not that’s true might take a more involved watcher of sports than me, but it feels true because Ray is saying it, and Ray is immediately shown to be an authority through Holland’s forcefulness and Erick’s subtle need to impress a man who works for him. With mentor Spencer (Bill Duke) in his ear and the tragic experience of his cousin in his mind, Ray’s big goals come from an earned place as the former witnessed the passing of basketball from the game to the game atop the game, while the latter was counseled to conform to the box the league needed him to be in instead of blowing the box up.
For Ray, the thought of playing one’s years and smiling while holding up a preferred brand of sneakers is hateful, as evinced by his parting words to Erick, but he’s no sainted icon with only his charges’ best interests at heart. He puts Erick’s career at risk in his gambit, and he’s not above using people towards his ends. It’s all for getting to a high-enough place that he can maybe take everything away from owners who would themselves shut it all down for network contracts in an age of cord-cutting. Republicans might buy sneakers, but they’re also much older, and the new wave that High Flying Bird heralds is one of decentralization and the next, move diverse generation taking control of the means and the production. The film’s aims to be as revolutionary as Ray’s Bible, emblazoned with Tommie Smith and John Carlos on their Olympic podia.
No one will ever know how many people saw High Flying Bird thanks to Netflix’s opaque reporting, but if it’s a lot, the best possible side effect will be making Andre Holland into a star. He’s been great for years, and this is a dominant lead performance that should rightfully open the door to bigger and better projects. He’s totally in control, even when he needs to convince the other party that he’s not. I’m thinking specifically of the film’s best supporting turn from Jeryl Prescott as Emera Umber, a believer in an Old Testament god and a prosperity Jesus. She is the picture of elegance and certainty, and though she gets played by Ray in the long run at no actual cost to herself, it’s easy to imagine her utterly crushing him on a different day. Gregg is walking a narrow path as a star player who must also convey insecurity about his lack of real-world knowledge, and he does so beautifully with small glances and fidgets. These three are certain types of cocksure agents and athletes, and they all come across as charismatic in roles that might otherwise find the viewer rooting for comeuppances.
The odd cast member out, strangely enough, is Zazie Beetz as Sam, Ray’s assistant. Beetz is another proto-star who’s been excellent in several venues, but in High Flying Bird, I either missed her plot line or it wasn’t coherent. Her final scene with Ray builds to an affectionate hug and a crescendoing score, but I felt that neither was earned in the film’s biggest misstep, along some Trump lines that will only serve to date the film in the future.
Though the characters of High Flying Bird are talking about contracts and percentages and page hits, the core of the film is a romantic one. Just like Moneyball before it, it lays an analytical veneer on top of something beautiful, which, in High Flying Bird, is the far more beautiful game of basketball. Ray gives a centerpiece, extemporaneous speech to the local kids about his cousin and their interactions with the game, and it’s a wistful explication of something that everyone that has played sports in an organized way can recognize: the moment when one realizes that they’re as good as they’re ever going to get. This is just as true a feeling for pro athletes as it is for ones who peaked their freshman year of high school, stuck with a case of the yips that blanked their memory of the rotations and marked their demotion to the end of the bench. Ahem, is it getting dusty in here? Ray is big-hearted in this realization as he communicates it to the kids, saying that he wasn’t jealous of his suddenly giant cousin, but that he was jealous of the kids who got to play against him. For all its content about disruption and selling out and manipulation, it is love of basketball that grounds High Flying Bird in something knowable and tangible. Despite this triumph, it’s good and reasonable for Soderbergh to be worried about the state of movies in theaters. It’s unreasonable to worry about visual storytelling when he can sculpt something this cerebral and emotionally potent. A-