While reports of Steven Soderbergh’s retirement proved to be more than a little exaggerated, the director did return from his fleeting hiatus with a new style of filmmaking. That return, which began with last year’s Claire Foy loony-bin thriller Unsane, wasn’t so much a second act as a reinvention in style, making smaller, more immersive and immediate films shot on an iPhone. As someone who didn’t particularly care for that claustrophobic and just-plain-silly experiment, I wish I could say that I fell a little harder for his latest — the behind-the-scenes Netflix basketball drama High Flying Bird. Alas….
Written by Oscar-winning Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, the new film feels stagey, confusing, and didactically obvious. You can tell that it was written by a playwright (which McCraney was and is). It seems to operate on the theory: Why have one Aaron Sorkin-esque rat-a-tat walk-and-talk dialogue dump when you can have ten? The stakes never feel quite as high as the hyperventilating Soderbergh and McCraney think they are, especially if you’ve had a passing interest in professional sports any time over the past 20 years.
Set during a protracted NBA lockout, where young black players and white billionaire owners can’t come to terms on the slice of the sizable pie they deserve, the film follows a hungry African-American sports agent named Ray Burke (Moonlight‘s André Holland) as he wheels and deals while being pulled like a wishbone between his own ambition and the concerns of the players he represents, including a hot-headed, hot-shot No. 1 draft pick named Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg). Ray’s career is on the line — and his quickly dwindling bank account, too — as he races against the clock to close the gap between his athletes and fat-cat management, embodied by a calmly oily Kyle MacLachlan. But Ray (working with and against his on-the-come-up assistant played by Zazie Beetz) has an end-around plan to bring the owners to their heels by staging a series of unsanctioned basketball games that will turn up the heat on ownership.
Soderbergh intercuts talking-head interviews with real-life NBA players who testify to the perils and pitfalls of life in the league, where they know they can be easily replaced by owners who see them more as dollar signs than human beings. This exploitative plantation mentality in pro sports is a point worth making, no doubt. And it lands. But like so much in the film, it lands in the most heavy-handed of ways. Soderbergh seems to want High Flying Bird to be his Moneyball or Jerry Maguire — an edifying wake-up call about the inequity and inherent racism in a game that represents more than just a game. But that story is as old as time. Or at least as old as professional sports itself. His style may be new, but the message is too familiar. C+