Steven Soderbergh loves making heist movies. That was obvious from the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, and the more recent “Logan Lucky;” in less explicit ways, it’s also evident in many of his other films. And while it’s likely that Soderbergh has a soft spot for thieves, it’s more accurate to say that he’s drawn to stories about people who try to steal back a measure of self-worth.
“Erin Brockovich” has the trappings of a legal drama, but it builds to a final scene in which its heroine scores a personal supply of restorative justice from the pockets of a corrupt system. “The Informant!” is an off-kilter comedy about a whistleblower who embezzled millions from his own company while snitching on his employers to the FBI, but Soderbergh can’t resist asking why someone would commit fraud after being granted amnesty. “Side Effects” might be misdiagnosed as a psychological thriller, but reveals itself as the warped tale of a young woman — married to a convicted swindler — who hatches a luridly complex long con to steal herself away to a better life. She almost gets away with it, too. As Jack Foley once said: “You’d be surprised about what you can get if you ask for it the right way.”
Soderbergh doesn’t seem to care if his characters are right or wrong; he just likes watching them struggle to assert their own value against an indifferent system — a corporation, a government, or a virus — even if that struggle costs them everything in the end. In his phenomenal new “High Flying Bird,” a Promethean sports drama that hums with the verve and purpose of Soderbergh’s very best work, that system is the NBA. And it’s profoundly broken. Not because the fans have stopped buying tickets, but rather because the old white men who own the teams want to feel as though they own the young black players, as well. (“I love the Lord and all his black people” goes the refrain every time anyone in this movie compares slavery to professional basketball.)
It’s 25 weeks into a lockout season, and no one is making any money. Not the league, not the owner of the New York Knicks (Kyle MacLachlan), not their number-one draft pick (Melvin Gregg), and definitely not his fast-talking agent who’s on the verge of being fired by his frustrated agency. That agent is Ray (André Holland), and his job is literally to help his clients assert their value against an indifferent system that pays them millions in exchange for treating them like human products. (In that way, Ray is like a more benevolent stand-in for Soderbergh.)
A lockout — in which the league and the players’ association are at a stalemate over their worth to each other — should theoretically be Ray’s chance to shine. It’s his chance to move mountains, and reshape the firmaments in favor of its stars. It should be, but that’s not how it works; it’s not how the game on top of the game is played. If Ray is to talk his way out of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sly and snippy script, he’ll have to pilfer back enough power to change the rules to his advantage. One way or another, “High Flying Bird” will become a heist movie by the end.
As you might expect from a collaboration between the director of “Out of Sight” and the writer of “Moonlight,” “High Flying Bird” is a clever film that moves fast and reverberates with past trauma and the promise of new hope. Holland’s shifty, electric performance embodies those tendencies every step of the way as he tries to move mountains and save his ass without losing any of his (increasingly desperate) swagger. From the manic opening scene to the smirking final send-off, it’s clear that Ray’s slickness is offset by a genuine concern for his clients. He’s definitely seen “Jerry Maguire” more than a couple of times, and he shares a measure of the self-loathing that compelled his fellow agent to risk his career for the sake of his conscience. Ray’s mantra: “You care all the way if you care at all.” He once tried to work around that with another rising star, and it haunts him to this day.
Ray has been raised well. His mentor, an old-timer played by the great Bill Duke, exerts a crotchety moral authority that McCraney’s script uses as a compass; he never lets Ray forget that the NBA wasn’t integrated until 1950, and that a sport invented by white people has always struggled to accept that so many of its best players are black.
Alas, it’s never easy to do the right thing in a business where billions of dollars are in play and everyone works for someone. Everyone except Sam (Zazie Beetz), Ray’s über-millennial take-no-shit assistant who jumps ship as soon as she sees a leak in the hull. She’d rather join forces with the man-eating player’s association rep (Sonja Sohn) and put herself on track to run the game one day. In an industry that’s being choked by its past, Sam is focused squarely on its future; Ray could learn a thing or two from her.
It’s a ridiculous amount of fun to watch him try, as “High Flying Bird” follows Ray he runs himself ragged across the Eastern seaboard in a desperate bid to keep Erick relevant and smooth-talk the league into brokering a deal with its players. The urgency and excitement of his last-ditch efforts make for a thoroughly entertaining tale of corporate intrigue, even if you don’t give a damn about basketball or what happens behind the scenes. The film is funny, quick-witted, and even throws in a little sex for good measure. Best of all, its various competing ideas eventually knot together in such satisfying ways that the didacticism required to bind them up feels more like a feature than a bug.
Soderbergh has shot on an iPhone (and on other cruddy digital formats) before, but this time he’s actually found material that suits his renegade predilections; the run-and-gun style of his consumer-level camera lends a surreptitious energy to all of Ray’s sneaky backdoor meetings, even if the footage still looks a bit janky and blown-out whenever the camera moves too fast or captures any sun-blasted interiors.
That being said, aesthetics are only a small part of what makes the iPhone such an inspired choice for this story, or Soderbergh such an appropriate choice to direct it. A control freak who’s spent the better part of the 21st century trying to find a way around the studio machinery that puts a million different roadblocks between a filmmaker and their finished product (see: “Bubble,” “Mosaic,” etc.), Soderbergh implicitly understands the root of Ray’s agenda; no Hollywood iconoclast has been so consistently or playfully determined to poke holes in the status quo and find ways of returning artistic control to the creators. These two guys live in different skin and work in different worlds, but they get each other on a certain level; when Ray sums up the current state of his career by saying that he’s “not out, just outside,” Soderbergh might as well be commenting on his own aborted retirement and how he’s positioned himself in the years since.
Both of them are striving to “let the future in” without boxing themselves out; to put the fear of death into the rich old gatekeepers who have more cash than they could spend in 10 lifetimes but refuse to surrender even a smidgen of control over their products. For the slimy executives holding the NBA hostage, money isn’t the sticking point; it’s power that gets them out of bed every morning.
If they’re going to sit atop a system that makes black athletes into millionaires, they have to feel like that system still belongs to them. They have to own their teams in every sense of the word. They have to own their players, and their players’ bodies, and even the images of their players’ bodies. If Ray wants to do right by Erick, and by himself, he’s going to have to steal fire from the gods and give it to the people who have always been used for kindling. They may not be able to hold it in their hands for long, but even a moment could be long enough change the world forever. At a time when a pick-up game can be live-streamed to an audience big enough to terrify the major TV networks, and a major motion picture can be shot on the most popular phone ever made, anything is possible for someone who knows how to play the game on top of the game.
Suddenly, Netflix isn’t just the distributor of “High Flying Bird;” it’s also a plot point. The streaming giant isn’t anyone’s savior, and Ray, for all of his virtues, isn’t painted as a benevolent superhero. But if the people who love the game are able to reclaim a portion of control over it, perhaps the game might finally be able to love them back.
“High Flying Bird” premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix on February 8.