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There is a train of thinking in film circles that each movie is about its director. This statement rings true in regards Steven Soderbergh. A cinematic innovator, he is constantly rethinking the way movies are made – experimenting with technology (working on digital video and iPhone cameras), storytelling (creating interactive murder mystery app Mosaic) and distribution models (using his cache to shoot independent films on small budgets outside the studio system). Perhaps, this is why much of his work centres on schemers looking to pull the impossible. This runs throughout his oeuvre from the more mainstream Ocean’s Trilogy and Out of Sight to the smaller Side Effects and The Informant, as well as his TV series The Knick.
It is also present in his latest picture – Netflix release High Flying Bird. Re-teaming with The Knick’s Andre Holland, it focuses on sports agent Ray Burke who is losing his basketball player clients on account of an NBA lockout. With the predominantly white league owners (fronted by a terrifically smackable Kyle MacLachlan) unwilling to cut a deal with the mostly black players and their union rep (The Wire’s Sonja Sohn), Burke concocts a plan. Using young rookie baller Erick (American Vandal’s Melvin Gregg) as a pawn, he works tirelessly over three days to put an end to the strike and maybe give some power back to the players.
Working from a script by Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney – which feels like Aaron Sorkin but from a refreshingly new African-American perspective – Soderbergh and his writer take what could be a solid sports drama and restructure it as an exciting con movie. We understand Burke is planning something big. Yet, like in many of Soderbergh’s heist films, for most of the running time, exactly what is kept from the viewer. Instead, we follow Burke perform various tasks and engage with those in his way through endlessly snappy, often meta banter (Netflix itself becomes a plot point) without knowing exactly what we are seeing. The viewer doesn’t mind the withholding of information because in the present the movie feels fast and alive. And when we finally do uncover everything through a late in the game flashback, it is all the more satisfying. To borrow a term from Soderbergh’s filmmaker contemporary and friend, the audience feel prestiged.
This relentless pacing of the film could also be down to the circumstances in which it was made. High Flying Bird was shot over three weeks and edited in three hours. Produced so fast, undoubtedly there is some rough edges. Zazie Beetz’s assistant to Burke and later lover of Erick gets slightly lost in the mix. Perhaps more work could have been done to explain the behind the scenes machinations of basketball for those in countries where it is not a dominant sport. Yet, it’s hard to care too much about these problems because the movie breezes over them so quickly that in the moment one hardly notices them.
Further Reading | Soderbergh Un-Retires With The Fast Paced And Heartfelt Logan Lucky
It’s also worth noting that High Flying Bird – like Soderbergh’s last film Unsane – was shot using iPhone cameras. Enabling the director to work faster than with traditional cameras, the technology also serves a storytelling function. This is a basketball movie without any basketball. Instead, it focuses on the backstage talks, the people pulling the strings. Often held in fixed static shots, the iPhone takes on a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Its like were watching something we should not be which we essentially are.
Andre Holland is terrific as Burke. With his smooth voice seemingly tailor made to rattle off reams of dialogue, he exudes authority and confidence. That said, through his sad eyes and body language, he also somehow at the same time manages to convey a deep sense of anxiety and worry for his future.
Without spoiling, High Flying Bird concludes with an overall happy ending for Burke though its not quite the shock or ‘disruption’ to the system he had hoped. Still, like Soderbergh, he deserves praise for his vision. Burke wants the players to be the ones truly in control of their business. Vocally against the Hollywood studio system, Soderbergh wants that for filmmakers.