Steven Soderbergh’s retirement has been spent making some of the best films of his career. High Flying Bird (available to Netflix subscribers on February 8, 2019) continues the trend. It’s another low-key drama about a character trying to break through the bars of a system that inhibits them. This time it’s André Holland as Ray, an agent for NBA rookies just breaking into the league. He has to navigate an NBA lockout that is preventing his hot-shot client Erick (Melvin Gregg) from playing, and him and his firm from getting paid.
The script by Tarell Alvin McCraney (his first feature, although he has a story credit for Moonlight) uses Ray’s situation as a vehicle to display the broken core of the NBA as a business venture that uses up young black men whose dream it is to play basketball but who truly function as avatars for licensed merchandise and ancillary corporate interests. It doesn’t diminish their love of the game, but it trains its sights on the game over the game where real money changes hands.
That’s where Ray is looking, too, as he maneuvers his way between other agents, labor reps and owners to achieve his aims. The marketing and word-of-mouth promise a heist film, and Soderbergh’s reputation for the genre goes without saying (Logan Lucky is his best, cough). This is not inaccurate, and the single best conversation in the piece has dialogue that come could from the mouths of any of his clever Robin Hood characters (“How do you show a man his humanity? You remind him of his morality.”) But the pleasure of High Flying Bird isn’t in the twists; rather, it’s engrossing in the way McCraney weaves his interest in the NBA with commentary on its ills.
It’s possible that Soderbergh saw something personal in McCraney’s script, with its smooth dissection of the various power levels in the NBA organization and the way those who do the work are ultimately those who get screwed. The retirement announcement linked above includes quotes from the director that more or less echo those precise sentiments. Whether Soderbergh found himself interested in directing the movie because he’s never done a project with a predominantly black cast and that deals with issues disproportionately affecting that community or because he saw his own experience reflected by the financial pyramid of the script’s chosen industry isn’t for me to say or speculate. I wonder aloud only because McCraney’s script lays it all out and makes it so simple that it never feels didactic. It’s relatable, even for someone who has never had an interest in the NBA. It’s a film about the NBA that features almost no basketball but talks about issues within the organization that most viewers can recognize in their own experience.
Soderbergh punctuates the story with interview clips that feature NBA players describing their experiences as rookies in the league, a narrative shorthand of sorts that makes Erick a more compelling character without necessarily creating extra plot for him to experience. It’s an efficiency I really appreciated. The movie isn’t adapting any specific story so much as it is conveying the experience of these young men and the business world developed around them. Unlike, say, American Animals, which had nothing to say by incorporating documentary footage into its narrative, the interviews allow High Flying Bird to fly higher.
Don’t expect a themed Ocean’s movie. Like I said before, some of the Soderbergh heist hallmarks are here, but to describe it as just that is selling the film short. Another win for Soderbergh in the best retirement in modern cinema.