1 Hr., 30 Mins.
High Flying Bird
igh Flying Bird, a droll and direct film about the behind-the-scenes politics of professional basketball, is the director Steven Soderbergh’s second movie shot entirely on an iPhone. The first was last year’s Unsane, a sensationalist thriller about a young woman who is unwittingly kept prisoner in a mental institution. I wasn’t so sure that that feature’s stunt-like approach was all that necessary. But
Soderbergh saw the iPhone-first approach as the neatest thing since bagged potato chips. “I think this is the future,” he recently said.
High Flying Bird, which is reminiscent of movies like The Harder They Fall (1956) and Moneyball (2011), better makes the case for the iPhone. In Unsane, the device certainly contributed to the all-encompassing feeling of dread and claustrophobia but wasn’t entirely needed to help establish it. In High Flying Bird, by contrast, it instills in the movie an anxiety that wouldn’t be so distinct otherwise. It especially amplifies a clinicality and asperity to the exchanges of percussive, Tarell Alvin McCraney-written dialogue, many of which are completed inside metallic, cold office buildings.
The movie is more frenetic drama than thriller, but the tautness of the performances and dialogue, paired with the nervous energy of the storyline, make it feel like one. High Flying Bird stars André Holland as Ray, an incisive sports agent who, in spite of his seemingly impenetrable confidence, is nearing his wits’ end. The film is set during the NBA lockout of 2011, which announces itself, early in the movie, when Ray discovers that his bank account has been frozen. The lockout entails that he not get paid until a revenue agreement is reached between the members of the National Basketball Players Association. It also entails that his main client, Eric (Melvin Gregg), who is also the No. 1 draft pick, not be recompensed, either.
By necessity, High Flying Bird mostly constitutes scenes of bartering, either orbiting around Ray and his NBA colleagues, or Ray and those closest to him. (Sometimes a personal can embody personal and professional attachment: Among the most fascinating relationships seen in the film is the one Ray has with his former assistant, who is portrayed by the dynamite Zazie Beetz and who is perhaps just as sagacious as he is, only without a personal office and access to fancy, name-bearing placards.)
I suspect that the movie will be most attractive, and will be best enjoyed, by people who have some familiarity with sports jargon. My limited knowledge by way of basketball resulted in much of the dialogue feeling hollow. It's poetically sharp and expertly delivered — the cast is around-the-board splendid — but to me it was also, to varying degrees, hard to follow in part because of the sports centricity. This is no fault of the film’s, though perhaps some slowing down, and some not pointedly dumbed-down hand-holding, might have added some algaefix to its waters.
More understandable, and what are High Flying Bird’s preeminent characteristics, are the ways in which it touches on the exploitative nature of professional sports — particularly how it predates on young black men — and its ideas of quiet radicalism. As noted by Richard Brody, it jumps on the idea of playing a long-fixed game in an idiosyncratic way without bending the rules too severely — not unlike Soderbergh’s use of the iPhone, which, until recently, might have seemed like a purified jaunt. Now when I read that Soderbergh thinks shooting films with an iPhone is the future, I can better understand what he means. I'd love if I could understand the next film he puts out using the device just as much. B