Steven Soderbergh’s love of heist films is something that is evident throughout his filmography. From the obvious Ocean’s Eleven Trilogy to Logan Lucky, he continually likes to return to the heist film framework. And here with High Flying Bird he takes his verve of the heist to a sports drama. It’s in a way a caper drama, about an NBA agent (a terrific, Andre Holland), who during a lockout attempts to keep his hot-shot rookie client (Melvin Gregg) afloat with no money coming through. But High Flying Bird isn’t your conventional sports drama, as it takes bounds to connect with the people living in the league. Featuring cutaways of straight-to-camera testimonies from three real-life NBA players (Reggie Jackson, Donavon Mitchell and Karl-Anthony Towns), as they speak what it’s like starting out in the league.
High Flying Bird has the shaggy energy of a palette cleanser, but at the same time it’s too heady and too deeply invested in big issues, to be called something of a minor work. Coming from a screenplay by Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Steven Soderbergh, I wouldn’t expect nothing less. High Flying Bird marks back-to-back films from Soderbergh to be shot on an iPhone, and unlike the previous, Unsane, which in its B-movie ways was designed to look dingy. With this film though, things look way more vibrant. At the same time this isn’t some pointless stylistic gimmick, as Soderbergh justifies the format. As this film is all about seeing the star athletes in the scrim of social media and viral videos, furthering them always being in the spotlight.
There’s a staginess to the structure of High Flying Bird, a constant flow from one conversation to the next. It’s a densely layered, intellectually demanding agitprop drama that fixes its gaze squarely on the injustices of the present. A lot of which can be credited to McCraney’s screenplay as it’s a pretty extraordinary piece of writing, idiomatic and almost poetic in its cadences, carry High Flying Bird to its serpentine nature in structure. It’s a plucky, windy fable of labor and capital in the 21st century. It’s a sports drama that’s solely invested in the backroom wheeling and dealing, as even in the one moment where a game is about to break out, Soderbergh almost comically cuts away.
It’s also worth saying, not everything works in High Flying Bird. As it features a backstory involving Holland’s character “Ray”, that feels like baggage unneeded with how little they delve into it. Through that though, High Flying Bird swoops in and slices through all of the contradictions of modern culture with a ferocious fleet of momentum. It’s snappy, fast paced busyness go so fast you don’t quite understand what just happened until the next thing is already happening. But like Ray, this film is in a big hurry and has a lot on it’s mind. By the end, Soderbergh has pulled off in a way a magic trick, bringing everything together in an Ocean’s-like fashion while acknowledging that the underlying problem remains unsolved.