“They put a game on top of the game” says a basketball coach early on in High Flying Bird. It’s a good line, because Steven Soderbergh’s new drama—scripted by Oscar-winning Moonlight cowriter Tarell Alvin McCraney—is a movie on top of a movie. Ostensibly, the film tells the story of Ray, a crafty, resourceful Manhattan sports agent struggling to protect his star client during an extended NBA lockout. In the opening scene, Ray lectures rookie point guard Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) about the importance of watching his cash. Their increasingly agitated back-and-forth, played out across a table at a deluxe hotel restaurant, foreshadows a narrative in which athletics and economics intersect at every possible angle. Later, when Ray suggests that Erick and his All-Star teammate-slash-rival Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) live-stream a game of one-on-one directly to a global, basketball-jonesing viewership, the allegory expands to include entertainers of all kinds. “The fuck you do that for?” moans Erick when Ray tells him he turned down an offer to screen future games on Facebook. The older man smiles: “Because Netflix wants a sit-down tomorrow.”
The joke on top of the joke is that High Flying Bird is being distributed by Netflix, adding Soderbergh to the list of first-rank filmmakers—from Alfonso Cuarón to the Coen brothers to Martin Scorsese—to unfurl new work underneath that company’s digital banner. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director explained that he’d originally considered partnering with Netflix on Unsane, and that his frustrations trying to push that film into theaters through his own company, Fingerprint Releasing, led him to throw in with the streaming giant. “It felt like, the kind of film it is, the best way to maximize eyeballs,” he said. “I just felt I’d rather have it drop and have everybody be able to see it.”
Anybody who has watched Soderbergh’s output carefully over the past decade or so knows that he’s been making movies on top of movies for a while now. What links films as stylistically and categorically diverse as Haywire, Side Effects, Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, Unsane, and High Flying Bird is a shared subtext about independence, whether expressed via institutional critique or stories of principled individuals persevering amid the indignities of late capitalism. Even his most overtly commercial titles, the Ocean’s trilogy, are, at their core, parables about gaming the system, as well as metaphors for movie-star-centered moviemaking. The line between Danny Ocean’s star persona and George Clooney’s is as thin as a Bellagio Casino poker chip. While it might be wrong to characterize Soderbergh’s relationship to Hollywood as strictly adversarial, his experimentation with multiplatform projects like the interactive mobile-app-murder-mystery Mosaic, as well the consumer-grade auteurism of Unsane and High Flying Bird, both of which were shot on iPhones, suggests a guy interested in finding an end-around.
The self-reflexive aspects of High Flying Bird are fun to tease out. It’s easy enough to see a link between Ray, a virtuoso negotiator whose experiences have left him with a weathered cynicism about his chosen field, and Soderbergh, who also knows a thing or two about being the Rookie of the Year. Back in 1989, he was the new wunderkind on the block after the watershed, game-changing release of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It’s a position mirrored in the character of Erick, whose on-court potential is about to bump up against the realities of a league more interested in cultivating longevity for network contracts than individual careers. The Cartesian conceit that a sports agent and his star represent some shifting, codependent balance of brains and brawn is familiar from inside-base/foot/basketball tales like Jerry Maguire and Moneyball, both of which High Flying Bird evokes in a superficial way without ever copying. Those stories are fantasies about showing their characters—and their audiences—the money while also reckoning with the love of the game. In Soderbergh’s harder-edged, scrupulously realistic rendering of the pro sports industrial complex, the game isn’t being played and the business itself becomes the only real opponent.
In Unsane, Soderbergh’s use of digital cinematography was dazzlingly lurid, suggesting nothing so much as a pixelated spin on giallo tropes, all harsh, flared, fluorescent lighting and uncomfortably canted camera angles. The emphasis was on ugliness. High Flying Bird takes a slightly different tack, eschewing visual beauty but replacing it instead with a kind of cool, detached neutrality, as if you could visualize room tone itself. There are moments when Soderbergh is clearly relishing the mobility and agility of his camera, adopting fly-on-the-wall perspectives or stowing away in a limousine, but in some ways, this is his most stylistically effacing movie in a long time, stripping away the sense of flourish that defined Haywire’s single-take fight scenes or Logan Lucky’s time-and-space-bending storytelling. Instead, High Flying Bird’s visual signature has to do with distance and focus, consistently framing actors against massive office windows that show them surrounded by Manhattan’s various corporate edifices—simultaneously in the middle of the action and on the outside gazing in.
Soderbergh’s sense of remove is the opposite of what Barry Jenkins brought to his collaboration with McCraney in Moonlight, where the lyricism of the images melded with the poetic cadences of the dialogue. Think of that film’s third-act duet between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, in which every cut, insert shot, and music cue feels enchanted by some romantic spirit. Jenkins and McCraney’s styles were sensuously enmeshed, while Soderbergh uses his aesthetic as a kind of container, tight and airless, to keep the script’s dialogue and ideas crisp. On a plot level, High Flying Bird is deceptively complex, positioning Ray in a series of seemingly desperate situations—including the potential loss of his agency job if the lockout drags on too long—while pushing us to observe his strategic maneuvers. Erick may play on the wing, but Ray is a kind of floor general. Thematically, though, it’s as tough and bruising as a screen set by Karl-Anthony Towns (one of several pros who appears in documentary-style interstitials describing their initiations into the league), offering up a labor analysis by which the NBA—never named as such in a film made without its cooperation—exists by the grace of its employees and not the other way around.
The time, you could say, is right—or at least charged—for a story hinging on the promise (or the threat) of the players taking over the game. Between Anthony Davis demanding a trade, the Klutch empire holding the Pelicans (and the rest of the NBA) hostage, and Kristaps Porzingis tweeting at Knicks fans to “stay woke” on his way out of town, superstar players hold more power—in the locker room, the boardroom, and the court of public opinion—than ever before. High Flying Bird isn’t a perfect reflection of the moment, since its representative star player doesn’t have a clear analogue in the Association—and the interviews with Towns, Donovan Mitchell, and Reggie Jackson are thoughtful without being incendiary—but you have to figure the National Basketball Players Association is going to like a movie that advocates for players’ literal and figurative worth. As for whether NBA stars would see a scenario in which they go mercenary and stream their talents to the highest bidder as plausible or impractical is another matter.
McCraney is a playwright by trade, and there are aspects of High Flying Bird that seem stagey, albeit in a good way: It’s structured primarily as a series of verbal duets, with Ray swapping partners among Erick, his ambitious ex-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), players’ association rep Myra (Sonja Sohn, a.k.a. The Wire’s Detective Greggs), and Spence (Bill Duke), the aforementioned veteran coach who talks about “the game on top of the game” and functions, even more than Ray, as the film’s conscience. The wizened old sage who occupies the moral high ground is a bit of a cliché, but McCraney, who knows when to lean in to conventions and when to ignore them totally, has written Duke the dialogue equivalent of a perfect alley-oop—he lobs up the lines and the veteran actor slams them home. Spence is old enough to remember when the Harlem Globetrotters were subversive barnstormers rather than a defanged corporate attraction, and he’s wary of basketball’s all-around commoditization. At the same time, he scorns the lazy metaphor of pro sports as slavery so intensely that anyone who uses it has to repeat an apologetic mantra.
Spence’s been-there, seen-that mentality and Erick’s naivete are opposite poles around which Ray can orbit, connecting with both while occupying his own rhetorical space, and Holland—who worked with Soderbergh previously on The Knick—takes advantage of the role’s agility to deliver what should be a full-on star-making performance. Whether ranting, whispering, or simply listening, he’s terrific, and holds his own against the great Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the owners’ jet-setting litigator with a smarmy arrogance that’s (gloriously) closer to his Showgirls villain than any of the multiple roles he played on Twin Peaks: The Return. But as good as Duke and Holland are, the film’s X factor—its best asset off the bench—is Jeryl Prescott as Jamero’s all-controlling mother, who guards her son’s business interests in both a personal and a professional capacity, essentially weaponizing her maternal instincts in the name of profit and protection.
It wouldn’t be right to spoil the other ways that McCraney’s script integrates the idea of flesh-and-blood family into the film’s steel-and-glass milieu, or to reveal exactly how much basketball gets played in a movie where every character is tied in one way or another to the sport. Suffice it to say that Soderbergh and McCraney are smart enough to use the sports-movie genre rather than letting it use them. The screenwriter’s cleverest game is introducing a mysterious package in the first scene that, while of no importance to the plot, hangs over every scene to come. Like a MacGuffin in a film noir, we’re waiting to see what’s inside the manilla envelope that Ray gives Erick at their first meeting. It’s rare enough for a movie to end on a high note, but High Flying Bird’s punch line, which comes with the reveal of the contents, is at once funny and serious—a joke on top of a rallying cry. Some viewers may be disappointed that a movie set during an NBA lockout features only passing mention of LeBron and Kobe (and Steph and KD) rather than their presence, but Soderbergh and McCraney make their one marquee cameo count even though it’s just barely a buzzer-beater.