High Flying Bird
Director – Steven Soderbergh
Cast – Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan
Rating – 4/5

Steven Soderbergh shot most of High Flying Bird on iPhones. I wouldn’t be able to write this review on one.

It’s his second movie ‘filmed’ with nifty handheld devices, following last year’s psychological thriller Unsane. But while that film looked like it had been made with smartphones, High Flying Bird – despite its very stagey screenplay – is positively cinematic, presented in expansive wide screen and bursting with vibrant visuals. But if there was a specific reason for Soderbergh to choose this aesthetic, beyond his unrelenting hunger to always keep reinventing himself, I don’t seem to have understood it.

One thing’s for sure, though. After several decades spent in the business, and having made many memorable movies, Soderbergh finally seems to have arrived at a major turning point in his career, his third – and there couldn’t have been a film more fitting to have brought him here.

Watch the High Flying Bird trailer here[embedded content]

The first pivotal moment in Soderbergh’s career came at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, when he changed American independent filmmaking forever with Sex, Lies and Videotape. The second arrived when he switched to digital cameras, which afforded him the creative spontaneity that brings out the best in him. Him finding Netflix is the third.

Remarkably, unlike the several other auteurs who’ve made the move to the streaming giant in recent months – filmmakers such as Paul Greengrass, the Coen Brothers, David Mackenzie, Dan Gilroy, Susanne Bier, Alfonso Cuaron – Soderbergh insisted that High Flying Bird be restricted to streaming and not be shown in theatres.

The result is something quite special – a film that feels like it truly belongs on the internet, directed by a filmmaker working with complete fearlessness.

Zachary Quinto as David Starr and André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh. (Photo by Peter Andrews)

High Flying Bird operates within a rather inaccessible world – a sports agency populated by smooth-talking wheelers and dealers during an NBA lockdown – but Soderbergh with his trademark flashy camerawork could made even a Lok Sabha session as exciting as one of his Ocean’s movies.

For the longest time, he was attached to direct Moneyball, the excellent Brad Pitt-Jonah Hill movie also about the ‘game on top of the game’ – the science and commerce that makes the world of sports go round. But days before filming was supposed to begin, the studio lost faith in his unconventional take, which involved cutting to interviews with real life players, and decided to go with Bennett Miller instead.

Melvin Gregg as Erick Scott and Zazie Beetz as Sam in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh. (Photo by Peter Andrews)

High Flying Bird is what I imagine Soderbergh’s Moneyball would have been – dense with dialogue, funny, and interspersed with interviews. In one of them, a player wisely says, “You gotta have fun. When you stop having fun, everything goes downhill and you quit.”

There is truth in these words, because during the course of the movie, we see how the system can suck the soul out of players, and how vital it is for people like Ray (played by Soderbergh’s The Knick star, Andre Holland), to help athletes navigate these waters.

“What will you do?” Ray asks a young client, who has been propelled to stardom overnight, like so many others his age, with no radar to guide him. “What I was born to do,” says Erick, the uncertainty on his face saying otherwise.

Melvin Gregg as Erick Scott and André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh. (Photo by Peter Andrews)

But Erick has been fooled into thinking that his job entails more than just playing basketball. He must figure out the worth of his likeness, he must negotiate contracts, and most tragically, he must understand that he is just as valuable as the amount of merch he is able to move off shelves. And without actual games to distract him, he finds himself veering off-track during the lockdown.

It’s not surprising that Soderbergh wanted to direct this film, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonlight. He has often spoken about the conflict that is going on in Hollywood; how it costs more to release a movie than to make it. It was this disillusionment that sent him into a self-imposed sabbatical – although he called it a retirement.

High Flying Bird is his way of expressing his dismay at the state of affairs, at how the forces of capitalism curb the creativity of true artists, regardless of the field they’re playing in.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Feb 09, 2019 14:28 IST


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