Steven Soderbergh might just be the most interesting and versatile filmmaker working in cinema today. In the last two years, following his thankfully short-lived retirement, the director has made the deliriously entertaining heist comedy, Logan Lucky, a truly riveting, low budget paranoid horror film, Unsane, and now a Netflix original film about the business behind basketball that has almost no basketball in it.
Andre Holland stars as Ray Burke, a sports representative at a major New York firm, whose young client, the basketball star-to-be Erick Scott, is chomping at the bit get on the court and play having recently been drafted to the NBA. Unfortunately the sport is in the midst of a months’ long lockout, with the club owners and the players’ association at loggerheads over the distribution of the considerable wealth that flows into the sport. This leaves the unflappable Ray in a tricky situation as he struggles to hang on to his new star signing, protect his job, keep the agency afloat in these financially arid times, and use his knowledge of the ‘game on top of the game’ to end the lockout.
High Flying Bird is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who comes fresh from winning an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. If anything this is a more impressive achievement. The dialogue is sharply written and yet convincingly colloquial, literate and fast without being inaccessible. One is reminded of Aaron Sorkin at his best, but without the much-parodied high-flown speechifying. In narrative terms McCraney‘s script is a subtle wonder. There is a real thrill in watching Ray working the system from within, moving those above him like pieces on a chess board as he creates a scenario in which the club owners are brought to realise that the game of basketball can be taken from their hands and returned to the players at any time. The backroom machinations are all a bit Game of Thrones in their cunning, minus the boobs, blood and dragons of course. Most brilliantly of all, this is packed into a lean 90 minutes. And yet despite the concise runtime, High Flying Bird gives even the least basketball-savvy viewer everything they need in order to fully appreciate the drama. In short this is one of the most dazzling screenplays in recent memory.
One must also mention the political overtones that are apparent throughout the film, as members of the almost-all-black cast compare the lives of black athletes to slavery, their position during the lockout like a modern version of the auction block. McCraney has chosen a subject matter with layers of relevance.
One shouldn’t take Soderbergh’s contribution for granted however. His film has the kind of measured stylishness that defines the director’s strongest work. He gives what, in other hands, might have felt like a static, dialogue driven script, just the right amount of movement and pace to keep it feeling like real cinema without recourse to any unnecessary flourishes. He has absolute faith in both the material and in the audience to keep up. He also brings an element of realism, as interviews with real players talking about the experience of being drafted are neatly inserted into the narrative.
The script is brought to brilliant life by the cast, lead by Andre Holland as Ray Burke, who viewers will remember from his plumb supporting role in Moonlight. (Anyone notice a connection here?) As Burke, Holland is cool, likeable yet calculatingly brilliant. The actor is a hypnotic presence, crisply and convincingly bringing to life McCraney‘s slick dialogue. Zazie Beetz (Domino in Deadpool 2) is self-possession personified as Sam, Burke’s assistant, who chose to work for him due to his integrity and love-of-the-game. Beetz portrays her character as smart, sexy and in control of her own destiny. She is the progressive centre of the film and has a chilled-out charisma that’s refreshing to watch. Kyle MacLachlan is magnificent in a modest role as club boss David Seton, whose slick hair, hooded, bespectacled eyes and quietly drawn-out speaking voice are so reptilian one almost expects him to hiss and bare fangs. It’s also nice to see Sonja Sohn (The Wire, Luke Cage) being made good use of by a major filmmaker. Here Sohn plays Myra, the head of the players’ association, and she brings to the part the strength and natural authority, tempered with flawed humanity, that are her greatest assets as a performer. She is perfectly cast.
Special mention must also go to Bill Duke, who plays community basketball coach, Spence, an old-timer with a long history of taking kids from the streets, teaching them to play organised basketball and improving their lives. Duke, who may be best known for his roles in classic ‘80s action movies Commando and Predator, brings all of his well-earned gravitas to the role. His performance is the perfect blend of weary wisdom, stern ideals, and laconic humour, which all help to make Spence the film’s moral bedrock.
High Flying Bird is a smart, compelling, compact movie. It’s the perfect synthesis between a great script and a director who knows how to adapt himself to the material without alienating or patronising his audience, and must be among the best original films to find its way onto Netflix. It isn’t precisely a film about basketball, but a film about the game that goes on behind, or above basketball and should appeal to all fans of great writing and filmmaking, whether they’re sports-fans or not. In short, High Flying Bird soars.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 9/10
High Flying Bird is available now on Netflix (regional variances may apply).