Ever since Sex, Lies and Videotape and its Miramax pickup launched the hideous nickname of "indies" and turned them into a commodity in 1989, Steven Soderbergh has been the great outlier among American filmmakers, working in so many directions that it can be hard to find the real personality connecting them.
Claiming a kind of auteurist anonymity, he's made the socially conscious Oscar-friendly films Traffic and Erin Brockovich as well as eccentric personal projects, including Kafka and Schizopolis. He turned a remake of Ocean's Eleven into a hit and then dismantled it in two odd sequels. He's made arthouse films as well as a martial-arts-heavy action movie and doesn't seem to perceive any difference between them. He's experimented with self-distribution and simultaneous video and theatrical releases, shot a feature film on an iPhone, and in 2013 announced his retirement, which didn't stop him from directing three features and two TV series in the six years that followed. In addition to his own steady stream of work, he's used a personal website (extension765.com) to present eccentric re-edits of Psycho and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite their considerable differences in temperament, the prolific Soderbergh could be likened to someone like Fassbinder, turning out film after film from equal parts of inspiration and opportunity.
High Flying Bird, Soderbergh's latest film, is his first foray into the world of streaming, having appeared on Netflix in mid-February. Written by Terrell Alvin McCraney (who provided the original story for Moonlight), it's a sports movie without much on-court action, Jerry Maguire without the feel-good vibes. It's a viscerally contemporary film (as with Unsane, Soderbergh shot it using an iPhone) about the inner workings of professional sports, specifically basketball, where money and merchandising pull more weight than athletic ability. Set during a player lockout, the film follows high-powered sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) as he fights for the interests of a rookie client, Erick (Melvin Gregg), while his own status, job security and expense account are under threat.
It's a strange film, part comedy, part corporate drama, with an underlying political message so subtle that one senses it more than understands it. As in some of his busier films, such as Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh loves the flow of movement, the restless buzz of constant activity. Every character is in motion, from the players to the executives. each working on their own agenda. McCraney's script is urgent yet light-hearted, underplaying the uncertainty and sheer ruthlessness of the characters. It's heavy on dialogue, but Soderbergh never makes it feel didactic or uses the characters (and actors) as tools for exposition. If High Flying Bird is an economics lesson, it's one with a human face.
The film's primary message is about the business of sport and the way the financial empire built around basketball overwhelms and ignores the players who form its bottom rung. But Soderbergh also allows himself a wry and characteristically understated breach of the fourth wall, a small reminder of the viewer's position outside of the drama. While Ray and the powers-that-be in "the league" (the NBA is never actually mentioned by name) are setting up secret negotiations with Hulu, Netflix and television networks, each using the potential audience as a way of shoring up their own position, it's hard not to notice the parallels with the current state of film distribution. As media conglomerates fight for viewers and strengthen their market shares by grabbing their share of production, independent filmmakers like Soderbergh and cable-cutting audiences have become (mostly) unwilling free agents, the necessary but underappreciated low end of new media.