PLOT: A high-profile sports agent (André Holland) tries to navigate a prolonged NBA lockout while keeping his financially burdened first-round-draft pick client (Melvin Gregg) afloat.
REVIEW: HIGH FLYING BIRD is Steven Soderbergh’s first movie for Netflix, a place that would seem an ideal fit for the fiercely independent director, who’s thankfully back in the game after a short-lived retirement several years ago. Like UNSANE, this was shot on a tight budget with an iPhone 7, not that you’d ever notice, especially on streaming where HIGH FLYING BIRD (which is also lensed under his Peter Andrews pseudonym) looks just great.
It’s a solid star-vehicle for André Holland, of Soderbergh’s late, great “The Knick”, who plays an agent very much in the JERRY MAGUIRE mold, in that he dares to put his client’s well-being ahead of his own need to make a buck. Whenever we look at star athletes and the first-round draft picks we envy them for their huge contracts, without considering the fact that many other entities take a bite out of what’s a limited-earning window.
Soderbergh’s film presents a lockout as potentially ruinous the longer it goes on, with “American Vandal’s” Melvin Gregg playing a new recruit whose first season has been delayed indefinitely, making him easy prey for predatory money men offering him loans that are impossible to pay back unless he starts playing. Usually, agents are portrayed as being among this ilk, but Soderbergh takes a different tact. Here, Holland’s agent is close to being a do-gooder, putting aside chunks of his own backend to set up rainy-day funds for his athletes, being haunted by the fate of the cousin he failed.
While an idealist, Holland’s character is far from a sucker, with him shown to be as conniving as he needs to be to get his players their due. It just so happens that his targets are the power brokers for whom six months without salary is nothing. Soderbergh’s take on big money’s involvement in sports is savage, shining a particular light on how, at least in the NBA, mostly black athletes are taken advantage of by owners, especially with them having very few people around them they can trust unreservedly.
Interestingly, Soderbergh’s made a basketball movie without ever showing the game, with second’s worth of captured cell phone footage from one brief one-on-one as the only on-court action we see. The movie’s not about that – it’s about the business behind the scenes, which is shown to be as furious but a lot less honest than the game itself. Soderbergh has it move along at a quick, contained pace, with this taking place over a seventy-two hour period and only running ninety minutes. There’s not a lot of fat on it, although it moves so fast you’ll be happy to have the opportunity to rewind and catch some of the lightning fast play-by-play between the power players, including “The Wire”’s Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan, Zazie Beetz as the smart-assistant on her way to the top, and the always great Bill Duke as a local coach essential to Holland’s (benign) scheme. Soderbergh even gets meta, with a moment where Holland’s character negotiates meetings with Netflix and Hulu for streaming rights.
Like UNSANE, HIGH FLYING BIRD is a modest entry for Soderbergh, with another Netflix title, THE LAUNDROMAT, being his next biggie. However, even his lower-key movies are always worth watching, and this is sturdier than some of his other, more experimental works. It probably helps if you’re a sports junkie, but even still, HIGH FLYING BIRD is an interesting film and worth a watch.