Steven Soderbergh‘s High Flying Bird (Netflix 2.8) is a whipsmart, talk-heavy sports film (written by Moonlight‘s Tarell Alvin McCraney) that may try your patience at first (especially if you’re a professional sports dumb-ass like myself), but which totally comes together in the last third and finally packs an exciting revolutionary punch.
And at the end you’re just sailing, sailing, sailing on Richie Havens crooning “Handsome Johnny”.
It’s a mostly-POC film about tough negotiations during an NBA lockout over the high-value services of a certain big-time basketball rookie (Melvin Gregg), and how his manager-agent Ray (Andre Holland) gradually out-strategizes the NBA skinflints in a way that challenges the whole damn system.
There’s a great line toward the end in which an NBA bigwig says about Holland’s new game plan — “You know what I hate about all this? This is exactly what I’d do if I were him.” Or words to that effect.
You have to pay close attention to the dialogue, and there may be a few slowboats like myself who will prefer to watch it with subtitles when it begins on Netflix, but at the end it finally hits you what a knockout package this is — what a revolutionary narrative, I mean.
It barely contains any footage of basketball playing (just two or three snippets) and is the kind of film that shows lovers putting on their clothes after having sex (Gregg and Zazie Beetz) rather than depicting or suggesting the deed itself — Soderbergh has never been much of a sensualist.
And it’s mainly (THIS MAY BE A SPOILER) about delivering the up-the-league-owners theology of a classic 50-year-old book about the politics and business of sport — Harry Edwards‘ “Revolt of the Black Athlete” (published in September 1969). And yet it feels very right now or very what’s-coming-next.
And it’s probably the most visually striking iPhone-shot film I’ve ever seen — it delivers clean and vivid wide-angle compositions within a Scope aspect ratio, and I for one was going “wow, I love this…it’s A Clockwork Orange within a 2.39 to 1.”
What High Flying Bird really is, I believe, is a double-tracker — partly a negotiation flick about a smart agent doing an end run around the NBA’s usual stacked-deck approach to paying players as well as a metaphor for what Soderbergh himself has been trying to do in the film realm for the last three or four years, which is to make, sell and distribute films without the big studio assholes getting in the way and mucking everything up.
In a sense it’s also a kind of basketball replay of Moneyball (’11), which Soderbergh almost directed before losing the gig to Bennett Miller, and which, of course, was also about a guy (Billy Bean) with a different idea about hiring players, and who has to go up against traditionalists when he tries to implement it.
Consider these excerpts from Will Leitch‘s recently posted “The Most Radical Sports Film I’ve Ever Seen“:
Excerpt #1: “If you want to know what the next half-decade of sports might look like, High Flying Bird gives you a pretty solid sketch. Whether you find that future horrific or a long-overdue correction depends on your perspective. But it nails the dynamic of big-time professional sports on a business level better than any film I’ve ever seen.
Excerpt #2: “In many ways, it’s another Soderbergh heist movie, with Andre Holland in the George Clooney role, but instead of robbing a casino, he’s trying to work within the sports business to, stealthily, bring it all down. His goal isn’t just to get his client the most money — though that’s part of it — but instead, as he says, ‘see a whole infrastructure that puts control back in the hands of those behind the ball.’
“Dean’s job is to get the power out of the hands of the (white) owners and into the hands of the (black) players.”
Does High Flying Bird have problems? Yeah, two. The sexual relationship between Greg and Beetz never goes anywhere, although I didn’t exactly mind that it toys with a sexual element rather than deals with it. And, as previously mentioned, it’s awfully damn talky. I’m not even a basketball fan, and two or three times I was saying to myself, “Jesus, why doesn’t Soderbergh cut to some hot-and-sweaty action on the court from time to time, if for no other reason than to ease up up the chatter?”
Then again, as mentioned, the talk finally pays off as the film flies into a beautiful place. The good guys win, and the white bastard owners take it up the ass.