Che seems to have served as a revolutionary awakening for Steven Soderbergh. Almost every film he’s made since that undertaking has been openly enraged by the state of modern capitalism, and how it commoditizes and destroys human lives. His idea of a horror movie is gaslighting by way of insurance fraud, and his heist movie is no longer a glossy rich man’s fantasy but a way for the lower-class to get back at the prison system, energy drink companies, and possibly America at large. So it should come as no surprise that High Flying Bird, his take on the NBA, is not a 30 for 30-style puff piece. Soderbergh is not a fan of how the NBA leaches off its players and clings stubbornly to its old model of doing things, the people doing the work getting screwed while the old-money farts in charge get rich. It does not take a genius to find comparisons between this and Soderbergh’s growing distaste for the studio system (even after he had to admit that he couldn’t beat them at their own game, with the failure of his new distribution gambit Fingerprint Releasing), which makes it not particularly surprising that this is being released by the studio system’s current mortal enemy, Netflix. But that makes High Flying Bird sound like a screed, when it’s maybe one of Soderbergh’s warmest and most hopeful films to date.
Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is a sports agent in the Jerry Maguire mode, if Jerry Maguire was less a romantic and more of a pragmatic professional… like, say, Steven Soderbergh. He’s trying to keep his head above water while an NBA lockout enters its sixth month. His corporate accounts are frozen, his assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz) has jumped ship, and his star client, first-round draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), is getting restless. But, as with many Soderbergh characters before him, he has a plan. A plan that runs afoul of both the owners (represented by Kyle MacLachlan at his oiliest) and the players union (headed by Sonja Sohn), and is helped along by Sam and old-time basketball coach and mentor Spence (Bill Duke). He may not have ten guys behind him, but he’s looking for a bigger, more lasting score than Danny Ocean could ever dream of.
High Flying Bird is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright best-known for writing Moonlight‘s source material. While Moonlight has an excellent script, its dialogue is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when praising this. This, on the other hand, is the kind of talky chamber piece Aaron Sorkin would sell his firstborn to write. Sometimes, characters talk about and around issues at a mile a minute, with no allowances made in case you miss a crucial line of dialogue, and other times, conversations will come to a screeching halt so that characters can apologize for comparing basketball to slavery (this is Spence’s bugaboo, and he has them say “I love the Lord and all His black people” as a mea culpa). McCraney is very much in playwright mode here, playing close attention to the rhythms of how each of his characters speak and arranging immaculate back-and-forths that showcase those differing rhythms (the one scene where Spence is out of his element and talking to Sohn is hilarious for how it pits the unstoppable force against the immovable object). Not that Soderbergh’s scripts are often bad, but this is easily the most crackling, dialogue-centric script he’s filmed since Out of Sight, and probably the first time since sex, lies when the script is the star of the show more than the direction.
But of course, the direction is still the star of the show for me. High Flying Bird is Soderbergh’s second foray into iPhone filmmaking. I am probably as in the tank as anybody for Unsane‘s iPhone cinematography, but even I’ll admit that its look skews more towards “compellingly ugly” than beautiful. It’s the perfect distressing look for a horror movie set under sickly fluorescent lighting, but it wouldn’t work for this movie at all. So luckily Soderbergh has created a more “cinematic” image this time around, and the results are practically a moving billboard for the possibilities of iPhone visuals. Shooting with anamorphic lenses and working in spaces with more available light than the sealed-off hellhole in Unsane, the image here is much more pleasingly soft and colorful, while still not losing the very distinctive look of the iPhone compared to other digital cameras (this look might understandably turn people off, but I love it like I love the look of Michael Mann’s later work). This also has much more dynamic camera movements than Unsane or most Soderbergh projects besides The Knick and the Ocean’s movies, with the iPhone’s easy mobility being tested with a series of extended tracking shots and 180-degree-axis-breaking motions (if this wasn’t made before Brian De Palma’s dumbass comments about Soderbergh not being a visual filmmaker, I’d think this was a direct response). In the development of the iPhone look, this is the Che: Part One to Unsane‘s Che: Part Two; both looks serve their individual movies, but Bird‘s look points ahead to a much brighter future for iPhone cinema.
As with Unsane, the iPhone also serves a larger purpose than just being the capture device. Unsane‘s aura of paranoia is amplified when the camera being used is something the villain could be using to record Claire Foy (that movie even has [famous movie star] show up to tell Foy to “think of your phone as your worst enemy”). Here, however, being recorded is name of the game (or at least of the game on top of the game, as Spence puts it). There’s hardly a scene that goes by where someone’s smartphone isn’t out, and they’re often being used to shift larger narratives. Sam tweeting from Erick’s phone makes the news no more than a few hours later, and one cellphone video is enough to have the owners shaking in their boots. Soderbergh has talked about the wondrous possibilities of young filmmakers using their phones to make movies fully outside of the system, and this story functions as a wake-up call to that; the phone can be the great equalizer of power if you know how to use it. The revolution will be televised, and in landscape mode.
I suppose I should also talk about the actors in front of the iPhone. Surprise, they’re all great. Holland has ties to both Soderbergh and McCraney, but he’s never gotten this strong a showcase before from either of them. The ease with which Holland spits out extended monologues about obscure subjects without coming off as a mouthpiece is truly awe-inspiring, and he’s as confident a performer as Ray is a salesman. It’s easy for Ray to be either a fast-talking huckster or a Jerry Maguire-esque idealist, but he’s just a man who makes no show of the fact that he believes in everything he’s saying, and wants to get it out as quickly as possible. Beetz is the relaxed yin to Holland’s motormouth yang, happily playing the straight man to his various schemes and maneuvers. Sohn, on the other hand, is delightful as the one person with the authority to call Ray on his bullshit, matching him beat-for-beat in every verbal sparring match. Gregg is exactly as charismatic as you want a potential Next Great Basketball Player to be, with just the right level of rookie overeagerness that will soon be knocked out of him (the guilelessness with which he says “I just had sex” at one point in the movie is hilarious). And of course it’s always great to see MacLachlan, especially when he’s basically reprising his performance as Mr. C in Twin Peaks: The Return as he is here (although Mr. C never blew a snot rocket in a sauna). But the standout of the supporting cast is Duke, whose genial grumpiness masks a bone-deep exhaustion with seeing his players get ground down by the system. Duke’s take-no-shit attitude would be funny in any movie, but even his funniest moments are tinged with a sigh at the shit he’s seen and can do nothing about from his position. It’s gotten to the point that even he can’t resist the occasional slavery comparison.
So, all in all, ho hum, another great Soderbergh movie. Barring a rewatch bump-up (which is definitely possible; this fucker is dense in a way that might very well mean I missed stuff the first time), I think I slightly prefer Unsane, which is getting unfairly brushed aside as a mere warm-up to this when it’s its own, very thematically rich, beast (the Schizopolis to Bird‘s Out of Sight, if you will). But if Soderbergh keeps making movies as good as this or Unsane or Logan Lucky into the near future, he’s shaping up to be on the best run of his career to date.
Lester Scale: Classic
The Soderbergh Players: This marks Andre Holland’s second go-around with Soderbergh, having played Dr. Algernon Edwards on both seasons of The Knick (at one point, Ray meets with a character named “Dr. Edwards”, and it would be a wonderful handshake moment if this Dr. Edwards wasn’t a real person). It’s also Bill Duke’s second collaboration, having made a wonderful cameo in The Limey.
Aside from those Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard weirdos (seriously, does Soderbergh have them locked in his basement or something?), High Flying Bird is, as with Unsane, mostly staffed with Soderbergh newbies. The two recurring behind-the-scenes collaborators are casting director Carmen Cuba and composer Thomas Newman, scoring his fifth Soderbergh film and his second under the guise of “David Wilder Savage”. This is an even more minimalist score than his one for Unsane, with less than five combined minutes of music that all come in the last third.
- Those real-life player interviews Soderbergh wanted to include in his version of Moneyball have finally found a home here. They’re interspersed throughout the film, with one of them amusingly leading to a recreation of sex, lies, and videotape‘s opening scene (with Beetz as Peter Gallagher).
- I find it funny that Soderbergh came back from retirement with a movie where not using your cellphone is a key to triumphing at the end, and followed it by going all-in on phones.
- The film’s costume designer is Marci Rodgers, who recently did excellent work on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. The outfits she creates for Zazie Beetz in this are maybe on the level of Riley Keough’s many outfits in Logan Lucky.
- In case you can’t tell the film’s politics, it ends with a Putney Swope joke buried in the copyright information.
Up Next: Soderbergh’s clothes are dirty, so he’s booked a trip to The Laundromat.