Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird drops on Netflix 30 years after his Sex, Lies, and Videotape played at the Sundance Film Festival and reinvigorated independent filmmaking for mainstream American audiences. Intentionally or not, the two films invite comparison as bookends uniting the past and present of Soderbergh’s career: Both are lean dramas composed of alternating dialogues between a handful of characters, and both are obsessed by intersections between money, technology, and personal longing. Sex, Lies, and Videotape explored how VHS could allow people to divorce their sexual hungers from human interaction, suggesting the perils of social media in its infancy, while High Flying Bird considers modern media as a vehicle for revising white patriarchal capitalism.
The evolution of modern media since the release of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has also paralleled Soderbergh’s development as an artist, which is another implicit theme of High Flying Bird. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a deliberately paced drama that owes quite a bit to old-guard 1970s films such as Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge that were revolutionary for attracting attention and distribution via sparse aesthetic means. There’s little, though, that’s old guard about High Flying Bird, which features a plot that pivots on the distribution of media via iPhones and other devices, and which was itself shot on iPhone, like Soderbergh’s Unsane.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape features classical compositions that are informed with an underlying unease—a dread that can be retroactively labeled “Soderberghian.” By contrast, Unsane and High Flying Bird are made up entirely of sharp angles that exude an aura of having been conceived and filmed on the fly. In these new films, Soderbergh fashions a free-form formalism that’s designed to keep up with the febrile energy he encourages the actors to breathe into the jagged, furious, and intellectually rigorous rhythms of the dialogue.
Near the beginning of the film, the camera pulls back from a Manhattan landscape into the window of a large building, before doing a 180-degree turn to follow a woman bearing a package as she enters a restaurant. She delivers the package to a table occupied by agent Ray Burke (André Holland), who’s lecturing a promising N.B.A. draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), for taking a high-interest loan. The N.B.A. is in a lockout, triggered by a stalemate between team owners and the Players Association, the latter of which is represented here by Myra (Sonja Sohn). Ray insists that Erick needs to be financially careful in the meantime, though he’s feeling the pinch as well. Ray’s corporate credit card is rejected by the restaurant, and he has to walk back to his office to be told by a smug middle-man exec (Zachary Quinto) that his own job may be imperiled by the money the agency is losing from the lockout.
The film’s opening shot is more than playful gymnastics on Soderbergh’s part, as he’s contrasting the physical grandiosity of New York City with the insular meetings that govern all aspects of its existence. As in The Girlfriend Experience and other films, Soderbergh sees politics and art as similarly thriving on negotiation. Yet negotiation isn’t enough if one doesn’t own the game. One must break rules to foment a revolution, and Ray devices a scheme that threatens to upend the distribution of sporting events to the public, giving more financial and creative power to the players. This scheme is also understood to be a reaction to endemic racism, which Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney acknowledge with a searing bluntness that pulsates throughout the narrative. The N.B.A. owners, represented here by a character who’s invested with peerless layers of contempt and smugness by Kyle MacLachlan, are white while the high-profile players are black, and the white ruling class wants to maintain the lion’s share of the profits, keeping the players in a place of pseudo-dependency.
Yet High Flying Bird isn’t a simplistic fight-the-power harangue designed to flatter progressive audiences, which is all too common in our current, politically fraught pop-culture landscape. Soderbergh also dramatizes the allure of playing the literal and figurative game, rather than attempting to change the rules. Erick wants to achieve the sort of success that he’s been conditioned to desire, part of which is dependent on a successful adherence to the rules. Even Spencer (Bill Duke), a coach for a Bronx gym who represents something like the untarnished soul of basketball before it was sullied by commercial interests, resists Ray’s power play, asking “Why set it up, if it isn’t going to last forever?”—a question that cuts to the challenge of remaking society and encapsulates the incredulity felt, in particular, by conservative voters.
In High Flying Bird, Soderbergh annihilates platitude to acknowledge a disturbing truth: that progressive revolution demands an imagination so powerfully tactile that it eclipses the assuring physicality of even an awful reality. An old-school survivor informed by Duke with startling gravitas, Spencer prides himself on having mastered the game as it was given to him, even if he resents the white patriarchy’s usurpation of an essentially African-American art. And Ray is complicit with Spencer, as his scam is, like many revolutions, a strategy for remaking the status quo in a fashion that flatters himself. Like the protagonist of The Girlfriend Experience, Ray is an ambiguous surrogate for Soderbergh, a freelancer who’s mastered a paradox of institutionalized radicalism.