I have to admit I’ve always been a sucker for a good sports movie. Or course the key word is ‘good’. To be honest it’s a film genre that has had more than its share of hard-to-watch stinkers. But when one of these movies hits its mark, regardless of the sport it’s centered around, I’m usually quick to sing its praises.
Steven Soderbergh is the latest to walk the line between a good sports movie and a crappy one. His latest film “High Flying Bird” works from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney and is loosely based on the 2011 NBA lockout. As a filmmaker who likes to tackle a variety of subjects in a variety of different ways, this is a movie right up Soderbergh’s alley.
André Holland plays Ray Burke, an industry-wise sports agent working hard to calm his antsy rookie client Erick (Melvin Gregg) during the NBA’s lockout. Ray knows the ins and outs of the business and the longer the work stoppage the deeper it digs into his own pockets. In some ways he resembles Tom Cruise’s Jerry McGuire – headstrong, ambitious, and confident. But Ray is far more cerebral and grounded in the real world.
Ray knows the stakes and he feels the pressure from both his client and his agency. With neither side of the labor dispute budging and negotiations at a standstill, Ray knows he has to do something. He begins by stealthily recruiting a former assistant (Zazie Beetz). He then starts tapping into his connections with the player’s union rep (Sonja Sohn) and the slick-as-silk spokesman for the owners (Kyle MacLachlan). With all the moxie he can muster, Ray puts together a plan that could either end the lockout or his career.
“High Flying Bird” is a very different kind of basketball movie. Soderbergh is much more interested in the business side of the sport than what happens on the court. You also get the sense Soderbergh is intrigued by the racial dynamic between white ownership and the star-studded predominantly black player base. And does he want us to see a real-world reflection in the NBA’s revenue sharing structure? He plays with these ideas without beating us over the head with them – just enough to prod us to think.
This is also the second straight film Soderbergh has shot on an iPhone (the first being last year’s “Unsane” with Claire Foy). It’s a fascinating technique that offers him some obvious freedoms which we see through camera angles, how some shots are framed, and even in how he uses lighting. Just as obvious are the limitations. By necessity most of Soderbergh’s camera craftiness is restricted to closed spaces and in how he shoots characters and conversations. Still it doesn’t undercut the movie’s value as a remarkable piece of minimalist filmmaking.
“High Flying Bird” has so many things going for it. I can’t say enough about McCraney’s dense Sorkin-esque dialogue. And let me be clear, there is a ton of dialogue. But it works because McCraney and his characters all have something of value to say. And while it may be a tad too wordy, we get a keen insight into who these people are and what makes them tick. You also have a fantastic cast. Holland shows genuine leading man chops while every supporting role feels true to their world (I haven’t even mentioned Bill Duke who is great playing a wise father-figure to Ray).
And then you have Soderbergh, an eclectic filmmaker ever willing to dabble in any genre and toy around with any and all cinematic forms. Here he directs, edits, and shoots his movie while wisely leaning heavily on a robust script and some good performances. It may end up being a little too talky for some people. But for others who appreciate an audacious filmmaker who is impossible to pigeonhole, Netflix has a good one for you.
VERDICT – 4 STARS