‘High Flying Bird’ review: Steven Soderbergh nails sports business film

André Holland stars as Ray Burke in "High Flying Bird," directed by Steven Soderbergh.
André Holland stars as Ray Burke in "High Flying Bird," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Photo Credit: Sarina Trangle

High Flying Bird

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Zachary Quinto

Playing at iPic Fulton Market and streaming on Netflix

More than most of his contemporaries, Steven Soderbergh has always loved the art of the meta-narrative, making movies and TV shows that are as much about themselves as they are the story being told onscreen.

"High Flying Bird," his first movie for Netflix, stands as the latest such endeavor. It’s a film about disrupting a longstanding business model — in this case the NBA and its player contracts — that doubles as a commentary about its own digital home and the role it has played in reformulating everything we’ve known about filmed entertainment.

Soderbergh’s more avant garde endeavors tend to either go very wrong or very right, usually without much in the way of a middle ground. There is reason to think "High Flying Bird" could have taken the wrong track: the subject lends itself to wonky didacticism; even most sports fans would be hard-pressed to be interested in a basketball movie without any basketball, where a lot of the drama centers around negotiating revenue splits. 

Fortunately, the movie is smart and incisive in the way it considers NBA economics during a lockout, chronicling the efforts of sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) to concoct a scheme that could upend them and their owner-centric inequities, while also remaining attuned to the human drama at hand as the protagonist scrambles to stay afloat amid the corporate chaos around him.

Soderbergh benefits from his first-rate collaborators. Holland is a magnetic presence, perfectly polished in the matter-of-fact way he goes about his business while also projecting the right measure of fear and doubt lurking below the confident exterior.

Oscar-winning "Moonlight" scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney has already shown himself to be an adept chronicler of intricate emotions. But here his writing keeps the bigger theme that animates the story in the foreground — the movie’s examination of the agency the most prominent and successful black athletes ought to have over their own talents, careers and public expressions in the face of a corporate behemoth that tries to control them.

The picture continues Soderbergh’s own experimentation with the iPhone as his camera of choice, the fluidity of which gives the movie a loose and naturalistic quality. It’s a carefully structured piece of fiction that plays like a documentary, in which the action unfolds in a deliberate manner amid the sort of cool, shimmering glass edifices that dot the lower Manhattan skyline, signifying the very sort of structured capitalist system that the movie insists must be subverted.