Watching High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s new movie for Netflix, it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s somehow more than a movie. Whereas so many direct-to-streaming titles have the feeling of a lark, some kind of one-off experiment that’s either a worthy failure or charmingly ephemeral, Bird feels almost like a pilot for a future prestige TV series, a proof-of-concept for future films. Perhaps Soderbergh’s most impressive quality is his ability to create movies that feel like entire movements, art that seems to announce “this is what we’re doing now.”
Working from a script by Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, André Holland (also previously of Moonlight) plays sports agent Ray Burke, a kind-of thinking man’s Arli$$, or The Rock from Ballers but with fewer pool parties. The whole thing feels like Professor Soderbergh took all the sports agent shows that came before and returned them covered in red pen. Then he did a quick rewrite. “Here’s where I think you were going with this” — a Michelin starred restaurant’s riff on the chili dog.
Ray Burke represents the number one draft pick, Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), who should be rolling in dough right now except that the NBA is in the midst of a lockout. The owners and the player’s association can’t agree on TV points and revenue sharing, so in the meantime everyone’s financial future is on hold. In an early scene, Burke tells Scott why he got bamboozled when he took a short term loan, only to have his own credit card subsequently declined by the fancy restaurant. Back at the office, Burke’s boss, played by Zachary Quinto, has to explain why they shut off Burke’s corporate card. Probably the hardest part of High Flying Bird to swallow is the idea that the big sports agency is tightening belts, but okay sure.
Especially in the early scenes, the dialogue is fast and almost scatty, like streetwear David Mamet. With a movie as talky as High Flying Bird it’s good to have a mesmerizing talker like André Holland as the lead. He’s the rare actor that can say one thing with his mouth and another with his eyes. Meanwhile, Zazie Beets plays Burke’s ambitious ex-assistant, Sam, with a humanistic ruthlessness, somehow both languid and calculating. She’s great.
Much of the film takes place in large, well-lit rooms or in tracking shots in the streets of Manhattan. So many movies are set in New York, but High Flying Bird actually evokes being there in a way most others don’t. I hadn’t known Soderbergh shot it all on an iPhone until I started reading about it afterwards, but in retrospect the city scenes are where it most shows. The iPhone seems to have allowed him to shoot on the streets without the kind of blocking and crowd control that a traditional film shoot would normally require.
Soderbergh’s use of interviews with NBA players talking about their rookie seasons bookend the scripted scenes, in effect mixing documentary and fiction, and adding some kineticism to the largely talky action. This approach sounds a lot like what Soderbergh allegedly had in mind for Moneyball, before then-Sony head Amy Pascal took him off the project three days before it was set to start filming. Soderbergh has enough confidence in his audience that he’s not worried about losing them with brief digressions into non-fiction, and trusts them enough to make the thematic connection. It’s an open-source kind of storytelling — weaving McRaney’s fictional story around the aspects of real life that inspired it. Maybe Pascal was right to think the approach was too fresh for the average moviegoer in 2009, but as art, as entertainment, for a reasonably sophisticated audience, in 2019; it works.
That High Flying Bird feels so much like the start of something is also its weakness in some ways. It introduces us to a style and a world that it feels like we’re going to live in for a while, and knowing that it’s just going to end when the credits roll is a kind of letdown, even before it actually happens. Soderbergh is taking his time, giving each scene time to come to a simmer, and he’s an enormously patient filmmaker, which makes High Flying Bird‘s scenes mesmerizing, but also a little frustrating. At times you want to shout Hurry up, man, the movie is going to end soon!, even as you try to savor a particularly chewy line delivered by Holland, Beetz, or Bill Duke (!!!), who shows up as the sagely old New York City basketball coach.
Regarding Soderbergh’s much-publicized retirement from movies and infatuation with premium television shows: High Flying Bird feels more like prestige TV than it does a movie. Its biggest drawback is that it isn’t; it feels like a pilot that isn’t. Which makes this a strange kind of a critique. Hey, man, cool movie, but how come there isn’t more?