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Netflix’s High Flying Bird improves on Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone experiment

“You care all the way, or you don’t care at all, man,” retired-basketball-player-turned-youth-coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells sports agent Ray (André Holland) early in High Flying Bird. Spence is preaching to the converted, but as Ray engages in some dangerous negotiations, the sermon seems good for his spirits anyway. A new Netflix drama directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird is dominated by Ray’s belief that passion and commitment ought to override all other concerns. Money, respect, power: they’re all secondary, the byproducts of doing whatever you do by the highest possible standards, no matter what the powers that be throw in your way.

It’s no accident that Ray’s credo sounds a bit reminiscent of Soderbergh’s filmmaking ethos. The film isn’t just concerned with the pursuit of excellence in the abstract. Though it takes time to reveal its true nature, this is as political a film as Soderbergh has ever made. He and McCraney appear to be interested in nothing less than the way entrenched power structures can be taken apart by those on their lower levels.

For Ray, that involves some combination of bullheadedness and deception. An agent who spends most of High Flying Bird in what appears to be a professional downward spiral, Ray is endlessly disappointed that not enough of the people around him share his fervency in caring about doing things right — not Erick (American Vandal’s Melvin Gregg), a could-be-star making bad financial decisions as an NBA lockout prevents him from starting what would be his rookie season; not Ray’s boss (Zachary Quinto), who’s shocked to learn that Ray has put aside a percentage of his commission as a rainy-day fund for his clients; and certainly not the NBA owners, who are betting they can put the squeeze on hungry athletes who want to play, and earn, before their time runs out, never mind what their lockout does to the game and those who love it.

But passion is a fragile thing, maybe even for Ray, who spends much of the film in heated, sometimes frustrated conversations as he tries to persuade, pressure, or trick those who don’t share his vision.

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