Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone rush is not over. With Unsane, he made it possible to make an effective thriller with minimal fuss, and now with High Flying Bird, he’s clamped down on his values and refuses to budge an inch. This is, in a way, his revenge against the system that once pushed him aside. This is his Moneyball and, dare I say, I might even prefer it? Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script has the same rapid-fire prolixity that is characteristic of Aaron Sorkin, but whereas Sorkin tends to let words get the better of his characters, McCraney is still able to keep his characters real. Someone like André Holland’s Ray can talk fast and cool to get the best of a situation, but he is also a man with his own worries, ambitions and demons. Nor does unveiling them require extensive monologues, which Sorkin would have relished. You can have fun with words and write your characters like normal people! Now you know!
In all seriousness, McCraney has written an ultra-savvy, hopeful, empowering film that shows us how taking on the old guard can lead to better things, especially for those being treated like mere commodities and pawns within a capitalist regime. This film makes it look easier than it is, and at times wants to have its cake and eat it too by flexing the Netflix connection a little too proudly (and this coming at a time when Netflix is practically dominating the distribution game, for goodness’ sake—it’s no longer the underdog it still thinks it is). In a way, maybe it’s also too idealistic, because there are not many Rays around who can concoct a risky scheme, execute it almost perfectly, and bring about a tidal wave of change within 72 hours. That’s asking too much. But the kernel of hope is there. Gaming an outdated (and unquestionably racist) system is no longer impossible or futile, and furthermore, it should be encouraged if we want positive changes to take place.
Soderbergh’s involvement as his own kind of disruptor makes this fun in a meta way. Ideally, a POC director should’ve had first dibs to tell this story, since it’s so ingrained in colonialist discourse (to the point where a direct analogy to slavery becomes the butt of a fantastic little joke). You know what, though? The self-reflexive facets that Soderbergh brings are gleeful little touches that make this as entertaining as it is. With McCraney as the brains behind this, Soderbergh’s iPhone brings the endeavour home with consummate form, and what results is sheer class. And I’d probably say the same thing if he made five films on his iPhone every year. The man knows how to get it done.