Netflix's High Flying Bird Review

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"They invented a game on top of the game."

by Casimir Harlow Feb 8, 2019 at 8:16 PM

  • More than just a sharp sports drama, Steven Soderbergh's iPhone-shot High Flying Bird has socio-political teeth.

    Likely to get dismissed as just another competent but niche sports drama, Soderbergh's latest low budget, high style feature is a snappy, Aaron 'West Wing' Sorkin-paced piece that looks behind the complex world of professional basketball, positing André Holland's central character in the role of a fixer of sorts - think Clooney in Michael Clayton, or Gere in Arbitrage - who has to negotiate the murky waters of an NBA lockdown.

    There have only been a handful of lockdowns - essentially a 'strike' where no games are played, and no players paid, or even traded, whilst negotiations are underway - in the history of the sport, and it's understandable why: the damage can be significant, not just affecting the players, but any attached businesses (TV loses billions in potential advertising revenue) and the key 'NBA' cities have their entire economy affected.

    Soderbergh undoubtedly loved the notion of showing the same studios that turned him down just what he could accomplish on a micro-budget

    High Flying Bird posits a fictional lockdown situation, placing an interesting spin on it - although not one which has not previously been suggested - as, with the battle being essentially between rich, predominantly white 'owners' and predominantly black players, one comparison is to plantation owners reining in their slaves. Soderbergh doesn't tread carefully around these racial avenues, but instead confidently explores them all, avoiding making it completely about colour in favour of making it all about business, and how big business found a way to place a game on top of the game that the players actually wanted to play.

    High Flying Bird
    Soderbergh previously had a shot at big league sports drama with the big budget baseball movie Moneyball (which, ironically, was written by Sorkin), but the studios weren't confident enough in Soderbergh's cinema vérité pitch, which involved interspersing the drama with real-life interviews to camera, to give him the $50 million it would cost to make. It's telling that High Flying Bird was made for £2 million, with Soderbergh no less committed to exploring the workings of the basketball beast and, indeed, arguably even more adept at traversing not only the business behind the game, but also the politics - a side which Moneyball didn't take the time to really address.

    Sure, Soderbergh's iPhone fascination - however commendable, given the commensurate micro-budget - is a little too lo-fi for Dolby Vision purposes. Whilst it has much more impressive long shots than in his (admittedly intentionally) claustrophobic last feature, Unsane, where hand-held shots abound, and whilst the use of better lenses and interesting framing frequently lends it a veritably cinematic look, there is some softness and blocking evident, suggesting that the format still has its limitations, particularly when delivered on larger 4K-capable displays.

    Similarly, this appears to be another Netflix feature where Dolby Vision is applied almost uniformly - which surely defeats the purpose of video's analogous equivalent to audio's object based Atmos, which is supposed to take scene on a shot-by-shot basis and reassess the lighting needs on-the-fly. As a result, whilst many sequences look impressive, others - like the bar scene in the first act - are bathed in impenetrable shadow which, whilst not privy to crush (one blessing of DV), still look simply far too dark. Still, on the whole, Soderbergh has come a long way from Unsane, certainly exploring just what you can do with an iPhone 7 and a decent lens.

    Machiavellian power-play and battlefield tactics, converging with topical racial politics to form a compelling Sorkin-flavoured drama

    Just as much credit should go to the cast, though, with the likes of Deadpool 2's Zazie Beetz, Luke Cage's Sonja Sohn, Star Trek's Zachary Quinto, Twin Peaks' Kyle MacLachlan and even Commando's Bill Duke (recently fun opposite Cage in Mandy) providing solid support in what is easily André Holland's lead vehicle. Holland - fresh from his acclaimed work in Moonlight - and on absolute fire here, reportedly pitched the idea to Soderbergh, who undoubtedly loved the notion of showing the same studios that turned him down just what he could accomplish on a micro-budget.

    The Netflix model is obviously of clear benefit here, without which Soderbergh's feature - which indeed utilises those very same real to-camera interview snippets he conceived for Moneyball throughout the efficient runtime, captured in glorious and almost flawless black and white - would have played a limited-to-non-existent theatrical run and likely disappeared on home formats too.

    For those with little interest in basketball (there's no actual sports played here), or little idea how the game is played, you have to read beyond the inadequate taglines that purportedly surmise the film's plot and essence - this is a much more interesting look at Machiavellian power-play and business battlefield tactics, converging with extremely topical racial politics to form a compelling Sorkin-flavoured drama. Recommended.

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