Steven Soderbergh skewers the business of sports in the brilliant High Flying Bird
Steven Soderbergh is having one hell of a retirement. Despite comments that he would be taking an indefinite sabbatical in 2013, the director’s output only seems to increased since that announcement. Since then, he made one of the most fascinating television shows in recent memory with The Knick, returned to his zappy comedic talents with Logan Lucky, and pushed himself into experimental territory with the shot-on-an-iPhone horror film Unsane. As he’s continued to ignore the meaning of the word retirement, he’s continued to solidify himself as one of the industry’s least classifiable, most exciting directors, with every new work pushing his ever-shifting cinematic mission statement forward in some unexpected way.
Now he’s continuing his hot streak with what may be one of his best films ever, a Sorkinesque battle of wits called High Flying Bird. A boardroom drama injected with the zip of his trademark heist films, Soderbergh returns to his iPhone-shot style to follow Ray (André Holland, Moonlight), a sports agent scrambling to force NBA owners to end a lockout preventing players (his star client among them) from hitting the court. Working from a script by Moonlight scribe Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Soderbergh turns out a dialogue-heavy, almost basketball-free film about basketball that manages to be more riveting and imbued with a sense of a purpose than most sports films. This is a sports film that’s disillusioned with the state of sports, more interested with interrogating the seedy capitalistic ways of the NBA’s largely white owners than it is with buying into the hokey sense of grandeur that so often surrounds films about athletes.
Ray’s crotchety friend and youth basketball coach Spence (the always wonderful Bill Duke, Mandy) croaks in one scene that these owners have “invented a game on top of a game”, and Soderbergh has a hell of time letting Ray play it. Holland, who continues to emerge as one of the best actors of our generation, tackles this chatty script with determination, playing Ray like a con man whose swagger only increases as he grows more desperate. The genius of the character is that he’s got skin in the game in more ways than one; besides the obvious financial incentive, Ray is a pseudo-activist driven by regret over the death of his cousin, his first client who he inadvertently betrayed by treating him the way the game on top of the game expected him to. The film moves with urgency not because it’s a particularly action-filled work, but because Holland makes Ray and his mission feel like it has the weight of a whole cultural movement on its back.
And indeed it does. Soderbergh’s new love for iPhones feels like it has an intrinsic purpose here, the cinematography evoking the Social Network vibe of legal drama with the energy of activist-produced media. Ray works social media into the narrative surrounding the lockout in the same way black activist movements have harnessed the power of technology to document police brutality and upend the social order, giving Soderbergh’s decision to shoot this film on the same device a brilliant social consciousness. Moments where the narrative cuts to interviews with real NBA players only makes it feel all the more prescient. This is a script that demands that sort of work, as McCraney is genuinely trying to paint a picture of how a cornerstone of black culture has been subjected and commodified by a rich white collective. Few films are so aware of the cultural importance and immense irony of sports than this, and it feels as Soderbergh is rising to the occasion and filming in a way that speaks to a movement while letting the script speak for itself.
Luckily, Soderbergh has all the pieces to let it sing. While Holland is the star of the show, there’s a stupidly good supporting cast around him, from Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) as Ray’s resolute assistant to Kyle MacLachlan as a particularly seedy team owner. The real stand-out is Duke, whose recent career resurgence comes to a climax here with a deeply funny, emotionally honest performance that stands apart from the youthful energy of the rest of the cast. Duke plays Spence like a generational relic of the past, seemingly ridiculous to his young players and friends but imbued with all the wisdom of the film’s own script. It’s just one turn in a film packed with solid performances that highlights some of the best actors working in the business today.
High Flying Bird is a remarkable piece of dramatic filmmaking, perhaps too talky and stuffed with ideas to be considered “accessible” but too damn smart to be ignored. This is a film about movers and shakers cornered in a system designed to freeze them breaking it apart with their own rules. Few films about sports, or even capitalism itself, are this confident in their message. If Soderbergh continues to plan spending his “retirement” making films as vital as this, let the man stay retired for the rest of his days.