Directed by: Steven Soderbergh || Produced by: Joseph Malloch
Screenplay by: Tarell Alvin McCraney || Starring: Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan, Bill Duke
Music by: David Wilder Savage || Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh || Edited by: Steven Soderbergh || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 91 minutes
Netflix has built a reputation for financing, thought not always sufficiently marketing, unique, concept-driven films that would have no place in today’s theatrical landscape dominated by cinematic universes and massive tentpole blockbusters. In a similar vein, prolific filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has lent his producing, writing, and directing talents to many projects of different genres that might otherwise have withered and died in the hands of lesser cinematic auteurs. Soderbergh has the the highbrow artistic skill, the common man’s genre sensibility, and decades’ worth of industry experience to work magic out of near impossible cinematic premises, from Traffic (2000) to Che (2008) to Magic Mike to Haywire (both 2012). As such, Netflix’s multilateral, eclectic approach to producing original content and Soderbergh’s playful antagonism with the Hollywood machine and genre conventions make for a natural mix, and directed my interest to Soderbergh’s latest stylized drama, High Flying Bird.
Based in part, it seems, on the changing landscape of free agency in professional athletics, particularly the star-driven National Basketball Association (NBA), High Flying Bird (henceforth, HFB) is an “anti-sports” drama in the vein of Foxcatcher (2014) or Moneyball (2011); it’s a thinking-man’s sports movie about the inner workings of sports industry, marketability, and politics. The film’s premise depicts a struggling yet savvy sports agent, Moonlight’s (2016) Andre Holland, navigating the treacherous financial and legal fallout of an NBA lockout (a contractual dispute between players and franchise owners, or… “governors“), including mentoring the number one draft pick (Melvin Gregg). Throughout this legal drama/social commentary-hybrid, numerous talented actors, including Bill Duke, Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Kyle MacLachlan, and Zachary Quinto illustrate the ethical disputes of corporate hegemony consolidating athletic and cultural talent from communities of color.
If you think all of this thematic content sounds interesting, you’d be right; unfortunately, Soderbergh undercuts this contemporary social drama and a decent script with some of the worst cinematography of his career (he’s credited as both director of photography and editor, in addition to directing). Soderbergh shot HFB on an iPhone 8 with an anamorphic lens, similar to Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018, shot on an iPhone 7 Plus) and Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015, shot on an iPhone 5S), and the results aren’t pretty despite Soderbergh’s considerable effort. I haven’t seen Unsane but loved Tangerine, overlooking the low resolution capabilities of the latter, and respect filmmakers’ willingness to experiment with novel, almost guerrilla filmmaking techniques in the modern digital age. However, the dynamic range and general lighting of this entire movie feel off, and gives HFB a cheap, “home movie” aesthetic compared to the rugged, documentary style of Tangerine, in spite of HFB’s superior iPhone 8 resolution (4K) compared to the iPhone 5S (1080p).
One senses Soderbergh attempting to compensate for this through a variety of camera angles, various editing rhythms, and a percussion-dominated soundtrack similar to that of Birdman (2014). However, the general look and feel of HFB remains ugly throughout, particularly indoors under fluorescent lights and within static shots, which is the majority of the movie. Only in outdoor lighting or during tracking shots does the film maintain any sense of professional style or flow.
Considering I missed his last couple theatrical releases (Unsane , Logan Lucky ), I had high expectations for Steven Soderbergh’s latest effort even before noting its fascinating sports drama content. The sociopolitical melodrama of corporate America against professional athlete labor movements is fascinating, yet it is shot with the most ill-fated guerrilla filmmaking equipment imaginable, a cacophony of cringe-worthy lighting, nonsensical editing, and cheap social media commentary. I don’t care whether you’re Soderbergh or some no-name short film director, a Netflix Original or a major Hollywood studio production: Note whether your filmmaking equipment is appropriate for the job at hand. Experimental filmmaking techniques are a high-risk, high-reward endeavor, and gambling this entire film on the iPhone 8 didn’t pay off.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Flaunting ambitious, captivating subject-matter yet a cinematographic style that distracts whenever the camera is stationary or indoors, High Flying Bird’s misguided presentation undercuts whatever social commentary Soderbergh and company were hoping to make. All the ingredients in the world a great dish will not make if your cooking materials are not suited for said dish. Editing, lighting, and camerawork are a failure, and anyone who claims otherwise is buying into Soderbergh’s hype and/or lying to themselves.
—> However… High Flying Bird is indeed flush with a great cast, admirable performances, a sense of humor, and a timely narrative that informs without preaching. Its pacing is smooth despite the movie’s overarching stylistic problems, no doubt a factor of the movie’s tight 91-minute running time.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED.* Even dedicated sports fans will have difficulty maintaining interest in a filmmaking effort this dry.
? Follow up with those black-and-white interviews of actual NBA players. A dynamic cinema-verite documentary is perhaps what High Flying Bird should’ve been.