Fast paced and snappy, Soderbergh directs his third feature in three years and proves he’s still got it. Delving into the world of sports he teams up with writer Tarell Alvin McCraney to showcase a fun but strong message about the world of Basketball today.
Shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh directs his second feature in this manner with the relatively under the radar release of High Flying Bird. Exploring themes of race and power in the NBA, High Flying Bird focuses in on sports agent Ray Burke as he tries to navigate a lockout in which the owners of the basketball clubs are refusing to allow their players to play (and therefore get paid) because they (the owners) believe they are not earning enough money from the business. Less of a movie about sports, there are only two instances in the film in which any of the main characters even touch a ball, High Flying Bird reveals the shady business behind the game that threatens to control the players lives in ways that they were not prepared for when practising on the court.
Whilst difficult to follow at times because the dialogue and plot moves at such a pace, High Flying Bird presents an intriguing story that evolves in much the same way a heist movie does making Soderbergh a natural choice to put in the directors chair. Featuring several key characters the film doesn’t swamp you in multiple motivations and hidden agendas. It is always clear what each character wants from the situation which makes it easier to understand what is going on throughout the plot. What is difficult however is understanding the context of the situation. The film assumes those who are watching it are aware of how the Basketball industry works, particularly the NBA or The League as it is often referred to throughout the film. It is refreshing to not have writer Tarell Alvin McCraney hold the audience’s hand explaining what each bit of terminology means as the characters discuss the situation, but it will likely turn some people off who don’t have the prior knowledge the film requires.
Andre Holland gives an excellent performance as Ray Burke, the highly intelligent and crafty agent who attempts to play both sides for the good of the game and he is supported well by Zazie Beetz portraying Sam, his assistant, and Bill Duke, portraying Spence, his father like figure. What shines through however because of the good performances is the excellent writing. McCraney has done a fantastic job at writing quick snappy dialogue that goes at just the right pace so as not to leave the audience behind wondering what just happened. Every character is clearly defined in their ideas and perspective on the lockout and all are played very well, allowing for a natural rhythm and flow to develop across the entire film.
Soderbergh elected to do his own cinematography for this film as he has done for a lot of the films in his career and his experience shows. Only using an iPhone he utilises the tight frames very well, bringing the characters close together and bending traditional cinematography rules in order to keep the film visually interesting. As a result the tone is worked perfectly with the camera angles being as sharp as the dialogue. Everything feels fast paced as the characters race to end the lockout so the players can get playing again.
The film also has a lot to say about race and power structures in modern day sports, Basketball in particular. It doesn’t shy away from pointing out that the big men at the top who are making the decisions of whether or not the players will play or how much they will get paid are all white and the majority of the players are black. It shows how the two levels have come into the game from different angles and for different reasons. The young and ambitious players want to play the game they love and prove to the world how good they are, whilst the men in suits who give them that opportunity, want to control and monetise them into a marketable product that they can sell. Throughout the film Burke referrers to this as the game behind the game and the message is poignant. Modern day sports is as much about the sponsorship, the TV deals, social media, the rivalries and the stories as it is about the game itself and unfortunately the wheels of that machine have been in motion for too long to be stopped now.
High Flying Bird is an enjoyable movie for those who care about Basketball or the world of sports in general. Pointing out the cold and calculating business side of the game rather than talking about the game itself sends a strong message about race and power structures in modern day exhibitions. Coupling that with snappy and charming dialogue the film sets an entertaining tone all brought together with an excellent visual style that was completely shot on a phone. If you like Basketball, sports or great cinematography you won’t want to miss this one.