To call “High Flying Bird” a sports movie would be like calling “The Social Network” a court drama. Sure, it would be true, but would also be a fatally narrow interpretation of the work. Steven Soderbergh’s (“Unsane”) latest project is so much more than it appears: It’s a microcosm of race and American power structures, an electrified dive into the nuance of NBA labor conflicts and a meditation on the evolving information age. It’s a seemingly mundane concept for a movie transformed into a prescient web of ideas by “Moonlight” screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, and ultimately, one of the most intriguing films I have seen recently.
The film covers the sneaky, perceptive maneuvers of NBA agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland, “Moonlight”) as he navigates between players and team owners during a league lockout. While the movie is centered around basketball, it is far more concerned with the gritty and complex backroom business of the sport than courts and scoreboards. While player representative Myra (Sonja Johnson, “The Chi”) and team owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan, “Inside Out”) struggle to compromise and end the lockout, Burke hatches a plan of his own, equipped with charming persuasion and discerning foresight.
Holland’s performance as Burke is one of the film’s highlights. His lines are hefty soliloquies spoken at nearly twice the speed of normal conversation, but he carries them off with ease and elegance. The most challenging aspect of the performance is that Holland must appear believably one step ahead of everyone in the room without them knowing it in order for the character to work. And indeed, Burke’s energetic grace embodies this quality perfectly to pack a startling punch near the film’s end.
Since the film is mostly just people talking to each other, Soderbergh must get creative in how he keeps the scenes visually engaging. As both the cinematographer and editor he employs nearly every tool at his disposal. The most palpable of these is his decision to shoot the entire movie on an iPhone 8. From the very first frame of the movie, it becomes evident that this choice plays a key part in how Soderbergh stages every scene. The iPhone as the camera ultimately feels essential to the visual language of “Bird” simply because of how inimitable the film looks.
The many wide shots of New York stand out because the iPhone lens gives them a memorably warped quality. Soderbergh also places the camera in normally impossible places, at various points strapping the iPhone on a ceiling, to the back of a car seat and in a narrow train aisle. While most of these shots were fascinating enough to spice up a dialogue heavy narrative, there were also times when the iPhone’s limitations became clear. Every time the camera moved from natural to studio light, there was a visibly distracting filtering of light onscreen.
A notable flaw of the film is that it might be too smart. I found myself having to turn on closed captions or rewind frequently to comprehend a rapid exchange. It’s an intellectually demanding process that not everyone will relish in. That being said, the film did make me engaged in the politics of NBA lockouts, a hefty feat for someone who hasn't followed the organization for years. The movie offers whatever you’re willing to put in.
The real impact behind McCraney’s script is not simply how esoteric it is. He uses the backdrop of NBA lockouts to comment on far more than the nuances of contracts and board room meetings. One of the film’s lingering questions is just what the best platform is for professional basketball in an era of rising streaming services. In this way, “Bird” offers a commentary not only on the NBA, but on filmmaking itself. Where is the best place for the content we consume today, on a platform as accessible as Netflix or a space as traditional as cable TV? McCraney’s ability to weave these questions into the conflict of “Bird” is truly enthralling, cementing “Bird” as a powerful sports drama with the smarts to delve beyond its own premise.