It’s not surprising that Steven Soderbergh made a movie for Netflix. What’s surprising is that it took him this long.
Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) produced the Western miniseries “Godless” for Netflix, but “High Flying Bird,” which premieres Friday, is his first feature film for the streaming service, joining A-list directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese and Joel & Ethan Coen.
Some film industry observers have complained about the disruptive effect Netflix is having on the movie business. But Soderbergh has spent his career arguing that it’s a business that needed disrupting. His experiments with digital filmmaking go back to 2002’s “Bubble,” and he’s constantly tinkered with ways to work outside the studio system, releasing his last two theatrical films “Unsane” and “Logan Lucky” through his own company. He even retired once, frustrated by the business — and then unretired.
So it’s not much of a leap to think that Soderbergh shares an affinity for the protagonist of “High Flying Bird,” a resourceful sports agent who wants to disrupt the business model of the NBA. “They invented a game on top of the game,” one character says of the league, and it’s a game rigged to benefit the owners over the players. Much like Soderbergh sees the game in Hollywood favoring studios over creators.
Andre Holland (“Moonlight”) plays Ray Burke, a sports agent trying to protect his star client, NBA rookie Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), during an NBA lockout. Neither Ray nor Erick is getting paid during the lockout, and both are sweating. The head of the players association (Sonya Sohn) fears that the owners are using the walkout to renegotiate broadcast rights with the networks, and only when the players are truly desperate will they come back to the bargaining table.
But when an impromptu pickup game between Erick and his biggest rival goes viral, Ray sees an opportunity. If the league won’t let them play, why shouldn’t the players stage their own games, one-on-one and three-on-three, and sell the rights directly to ESPN or HBO (or, in one winking scene, Netflix itself?)
It’s an idea with potentially cataclysmic effects on the business of sports. The screenplay by playwright Tarell Alvin McRaney (who co-wrote “Moonlight”) uses that as a jumping-off point for a broader analysis of labor versus management in America. “High Flying Bird” isn’t really a sports movie at all, it turns out.
The film is fast-moving and dense with smart, funny dialogue, almost daring the audience to keep up with Ray and his assistant Samantha (Zazie Beetz) as they wheel and deal. The rich supporting cast includes a marvelous performance by Bill Duke as Ray’s dyspeptic mentor. As with “Unsane,” Soderbergh shot the whole thing on an iPhone, the camera moving in close to the characters in offices and bars, or gliding down the corridors of trains and private jets.
“High Flying Bird” ends a little abruptly, just when things start to get interesting. You could see the possibilities of an entire series about Ray and Erick building their “shadow league” and its ramifications. But on its own merits, “Bird” is a bracing shot across the bow of both the sports and movie industries. And one senses that Soderbergh, 30 years into his career, is just getting started.