Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Tarell Alvin McCarney
Starring: André Hollan, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto
The relationship between athletes and the organizations that employ them have always been something I have found rather interesting. Especially when examining the National Basketball Association (NBA), which is predominantly comprised of African-American men and owners that are mostly white men. The term “owner” obviously refers to the team and not the players but the history of this nation and the way these athletes are viewed by the media and the billionaires provide some interesting food for thought. Within this particular film, the negotiation between these players and owners surrounds every interaction and influences the solution every character attempts to find.
During a lockout, sports agent, Ray Burke (Andre Holland) receives notification that there might be layoffs at his agency with lack of funds becoming an issue. This reality forces him to maneuver his own way through this circumstance to get the best for his players while also saving his own position in the sports world.
The construction of this film comes together almost like a mix of narrative and documentary filmmaking as it employs the real-life testimonials of NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell. Their experiences as newly NBA rookies truly informs the rest of the story because Ray spends much of the film educating his client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), about how to navigate the world of being a professional athlete. Mixing those real stories with the narrative tale, Steven Soderbergh adds validity to this story and makes it feel authentic even when the situations seem absurd.
This type of story matches perfectly for a filmmaker like Soderbergh as it lies within his own ethos in regards to his place in Hollywood. He, like Ray, does not want to be beholden to corporations and what they can provide for the smaller people. The decisions made by Ray in this film reflect how Soderbergh navigates in the world of filmmaking. From using an iPhone to make a movie to being one of the first prominent directors to see streaming as the new wave of release patterns for feature films. Soderbergh and Ray admirably harbor those similarities. This film has the quick-talking back-and-forth typically seen in a Soderbergh film and through camera placement and movement, it’s quite obvious that it was shot on an iPhone. That really adds to the modernity of this piece. Everything feels new and up to date from the way characters speak and how timeless the issue of negotiation has become.
I found this film to be fine, but the best part of it came from Andre Holland, who I want to have a big career after a tremendous performance in Moonlight. The beautiful sincerity he expressed in that film needs to be seen more in stories and his talents shined once again in High Flying Bird. Ray runs around as a smooth operator who tries to navigate this world filled with ego and testosterone. He needs to have his players see the bigger picture, while also being an advocate for them in their identity as African-American men in the United States. As a leading performance, Holland delivers the goods and I hope he gets more opportunities to show off his talents.
While being a good idea overall, this film did have its issues in feeling slight for me. After finishing the narrative I felt the story could have dived deeper into its themes. It never calls its professional basketball league the NBA, obviously for copyright reasons but I felt Soderbergh could have made a stronger statement. It appears that this production moved rather quickly seeing as Soderbergh has become quite prolific with releasing two feature films in 2019 with the other being The Laundromat. This film works but it feels rather basic when looking at it as a whole. Definitely minor Soderbergh, but still very entertaining and fun characters.