Three decades into his career, Steven Soderbergh is still dedicated to pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and exploring new territory. His latest, High Flying Bird, is a dialog-heavy drama that follows the backroom dealings of Ray, a sports agent who has to navigate his way through an NBA lockout which threatens more than just his career. In theory, the film is to basketball what Moneyball is to baseball, though Soderbergh’s film feels more theatrical, using an elliptical structure and his cast of incredibly talented performers to his advantage.
Ray is just as clever as he is ambitious and André Holland perfectly embodies this fast-talking go-getter. In the opening shot, we hear Ray chide his client for being short-sighted before the two of them even appear in frame. We immediately understand Ray’s intention, motivation, and method just from the inflection of the dialog. The screenplay is the film’s most valuable asset, and Soderbergh uses the characters’ interactions to tell the entire story, even if most of the audience won't be able to follow the precise details of Ray’s dealings.
Andre Holland in High Flying Bird, photo by Peter Andrews, courtesy of Netflix
The dialog itself may be esoteric, focusing on the ins-and-outs of the NBA lockout, the relationship between the league and the Players Association, and how both impact Ray’s relationship to his colleagues and client, but Soderbergh’s most potent tool is his ability to elevate material through his direction of actors, and he uses it to dazzling effect here. Instead of dumbing down or over-explaining, Soderbergh smartly turns the focus to the character dynamics. The first scene begins with Ray and his client Erick discussing a prior event where Erick was offered a lucrative deal at a party. The details of this conversation, as with most conversations in the film, are superfluous; we don’t ever see this party, meet this other character, or deal with the consequences of Erick’s actions. It never gets brought up again, but the conversation serves an important purpose. It shows the kind of business and personal relationship Ray shares with his client and the way he uses his influence to extraordinary effect. Even though we may not know the specifics of what Ray is arguing for in any given scene, we understand through his body language and tone how he argues, and that’s all Soderbergh needs to convey.
The film is mostly comprised of scenes of two or three characters trading dialog, and Soderbergh leans into this by having the film feel almost like a stage play. Scenes often take place either just before or after a major event, including a pivotal one-on-one game which we only see later through cell phone footage, and by excising these crucial events, Soderbergh places us directly in Ray’s shoes, having to prepare for or contend with the ramifications of the day’s multiple crises. And as with his clever capers, Soderbergh even plays with narrative structure in the film’s final stretch, giving the audience a few last minute surprises.
Andre Holland & Melvin Gregg in High Flying Bird, photo by Peter Andrews, courtesy of Netflix
Like with his last feature, Soderbergh shoots the entirety of High Flying Bird on an iPhone, though unfortunately, it does the material no favors here. With Unsane, the aggressively amateurish, close-up cinematography reflected the character’s frantic mental state and made the film visually immersive. Here, the amateurish low-end photography detracts from the film’s mostly high-class, corporate setting, and a few shots feature some really distracting image stabilization. Since the shots are primarily intended to be sleek and smooth, why even shoot this on an iPhone?
Even with this apparent disconnect between style and substance, the film is still impressive. Soderbergh keeps the material engaging by bringing the character dynamics to the forefront, and complimenting the snappy dialog with suitably heightened performances. Though it may feel somewhat slight or inessential, High Flying Bird is one of Soderbergh’s most interesting and entertaining efforts this decade.