Player empowerment has been a fascinating trend in professional basketball since LeBron James’ decision—literally titled “The Decision” in a television special he arranged—to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. High Flying Bird, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Steven Soderbergh, plays catch-up a bit with the story of a sports agent (Andre Holland) trying to negotiate his way through a player lockout.
As Ray Burke, Holland shifts out of the quiet soulfulness he brought to the final section of Moonlight into something sharper and more fleet. A fast talker who’s usually two steps ahead of his conversation partner, Burke would have been a good fit for the team at the center of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven—especially once we begin to suspect he may be playing a long con on both the players and the owners.
McCraney has a background as a playwright, which may explain why High Flying Bird mostly consists of a series of zippy conversations. Each one is overstuffed with so many ideas—not just about sports, but also sexuality, faith, economics, and history—that the characters don’t quite register as flesh-and-blood figures (save for Sonja Sohn as the no-nonsense head of the players’ union, who might even be able to win a stare-down with Angela Bassett).
As for Soderbergh, he’s chosen to make High Flying Bird the same way he made his last project, Unsane: with a camera phone. While there were thematic reasons for the choice in that instance, I can’t say the format brings much to the proceedings here. Sure, Soderbergh has more versatility in terms of where to put the camera for these countless conversations, but did he really have to present the opening meeting between Ray and his rookie client (Melvin Gregg) with close-ups, two shots, overhead angles, and standard shot-reverse-shots? It’s as if the scene has dissociative identity disorder. I’m all for NBA players getting more freedom; I like filmmakers such as Soderbergh when they’re working within limitations.