Steven Soderbergh has been in the game for 30 years. His auspicious debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, was the talk of the 1989 Sundance festival, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival mere months later, and premiered on North American screens that fall to become one of the most praised and watched indies ever. Simply put, the film ushered in a new wave of American independent cinema. Then, two years later, Soderbergh released Kafka. An intellectual, obtuse, and overproduced amalgamation of Franz Kafka academia and worship, the film bombed – critically and financially – and is the epitome of the sophomore slump.
Soderbergh's subsequent career is a storied one, full of hits and misses in and outside of the Hollywood studio system, but – “retirement” period from 2014-17 notwithstanding – the filmmaker remains one of the most adventurous and prolific directors working today. Auterists have a difficult time pigeonholeing him. For one, his aesthetic approach varies, dictated more by each film’s narrative and the director’s current technological interests rather than an overarching Soderbergh-ian style. If anything, he can be regarded as a genre dabbler in the Hawksian mode, although that old Hollywood master’s films are instantly recognizable as Hawks’ works, both stylistically and thematically.
Acknowledging that this kind of reductive classification may not even be necessary, there is one consistency across the entirety of Soderbergh's oeuvre: He is the ultimate purveyor of contemporary social and cinematic issues working through genre frameworks. This is especially true of his recent theatrical features: post-recession showbiz “musical” (Magic Mike, 2012); big-pharma mystery-cum-modern identity crisis (Side Effects, 2013); silent-majority heist romp (Logan Lucky, 2017); and #MeToo parable/health-care-system indictment (Unsane, 2018). The mix of social critique and genre revision in these films has been alternatively unsuccessful (Unsane), too sly for mainstream audiences (Logan, Side Effects), or roundly revered (Magic Mike).
High Flying Bird not only finds Soderbergh in this mode once again, but it is also one of his very best. The film is both a multi-layered salute to individual integrity within a rapacious industry and a crackling genre exercise with some of the director’s most controlled yet expressive filmmaking ever.
The ostensible genre here is the sports movie, but as in the baseball hit Moneyball (2011) – a film Soderbergh developed before Bennett Miller took the reins – the narrative privileges the business of the game over the game itself (basketball in this case). Ray Burke (André Holland, in another next-level performance after Moonlight ) is a longtime sports agent known for bending the rules to his clients’ benefit. One of those clients, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), is a No. 1 draft pick freshly signed to the New York Knicks but prevented from playing due to protracted labor negotiations between the NBA team owners and players. This lockout stops the cash flow to players and therefore their agents. The main goal of the protagonists in Bird is therefore relatively simple: stop the lockout and get the players back on the court.
Of course, doing so is not so straightforward, and in the incredibly complex details of achieving that goal, the film smartly uses the elements of another genre, the film noir, to position Ray as Jerry Maguire by way of Sam Spade, a cunning and charming manipulator always three steps ahead of his opponents. He even has a gal Friday named Sam (the enviably cool Zazie Beetz of television’s Atlanta), his recent ex-assistant, a woman who is herself a capable detective. The rest of the noir archetypes are also present. Erick is the ingénue, while Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), another top draft pick, is Erick’s antagonist and the mark. Jamero’s mother and manager, Emera (Jeryl Prescott), is Ray’s rival sleuth gunning for the No. 1 spot. Spence (Bill Duke), a retired neighborhood coach, is a wise, curmudgeonly ally to Ray. David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), the New York Knicks owner, is the seedy mastermind who attempts to block Ray at every move. In the middle of it all is Players Association representative Myra (Sonja Sohn), an old friend of Ray’s whose official position often complicates his plans, like a good cop to his gumshoe.
If Bird is a basketball drama laid over The Maltese Falcon (1941), then this film’s MacGuffin is something even more intangible than the former’s gilded “stuff that dreams are made of.” The largely white owners use the largely black players’ love for the game to curtail their autonomy, employing restrictive regulations to oppress them while increasingly benefiting financially from their labor. The struggle for earned and deserved autonomy, respectability, and acknowledgement is the conflict at the heart of the lockout, the ultimate goal for Ray and his allies as the agent makes moves to change “the game on top of the game” through both expertly plotted strategy and a few Hail Mary passes.
Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney – who won an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight with that film’s director, Barry Jenkins – deftly complicates the industry-interruption narrative with both personal trauma and collective black trauma, never reaching for preachy didacticism and always displaying sparkling wit. Buried in the background of Ray’s motivation is his complex pain in suppressing his former client and cousin’s sexuality before that man’s premature death (implied to have been suicide). Even more complex is each character’s relationship to Christianity and its tenets of forgiveness and understanding. In Bird, the religion acts as built-in cultural trait – not a central narrative conceit as in so much trite “faith-based” fare. Some characters use religion as a justification for exploitation, while others employ it as a guiding light. McCraney eschews more hackneyed metaphors, going so far as to lambaste them through Spence. The old-timer recoils indignantly at NBA-as-slavery analogies, requiring in every instance that the speaker recite a biblically flavored mantra as penance.
Soderbergh, clearly re-energized by McCraney’s text, matches its dexterity by further developing his recent preferred production workflow of shooting on an iPhone, which he first used for Unsane. Whereas that madhouse horror used the fuzziness of the device’s images to suggest a confused state of reality, Bird looks remarkably polished, as crisp and clean as any other of Soderbergh’s digitally shot work. With a wide-angle lens affixed to the camera, the small and portable setup allows for at least two important visual touches. First, Soderbergh is able to frame his figures as though they are enveloped by the surrounding, stiflingly modern architectures, neatly mirroring the characters’ anxieties. Second, the director is able to easily exaggerate distance and movement. The result is a new, digital expressionism, an apt aesthetic for the noir proceedings that attempts to mimic the visual brawn of Orson Welles’ own excursions in the genre, The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958).
Those touchtones are simply inspiration, however, as High Flying Bird is not necessarily a groundbreaking masterwork. It doesn’t need to be. Compared to any of Welles’ and most of Soderbergh's own features, Bird is modestly scaled, and its director seems keenly aware of this. Soderbergh worked under the constraints of a $2 million budget, premiered the feature at the Slamdance film festival – Sundance’s “little sister” festival, of which he is highly supportive – and is now releasing it without much fanfare on Netflix, sans any theatrical distribution. It’s a particularly interesting move for a film about an industry disruptor, directed by a filmmaker who could be called exactly that, and it’s entirely possible Soderbergh’s identification with the lead character is why the film resonates so potently. Steven Soderbergh is at the top of his game right now, and High Flying Bird is a slam dunk.