Before he aggressively undulates, gyrates, and throws himself all around the stage of the Xquisite Strip Club, the Mike of Magic Mike flexes his proverbial muscles elsewhere. When he first meets Alex Pettyfer’s Adam, he’s working on a crew under a roofing contractor in the Tampa suburbs, installing mission-style clay roof tiles with gloves and a mallet. Rather than justifiably focusing on Channing Tatum doing physical labor and sweating in the hot summer sun, the script diverts its attentions toward Mike demanding agreed upon pay and hours from his boss. That boss later busts Adam for taking more drinks and snacks than is allowed. At the heart of everything in Magic Mike is a negotiation of labor.
In almost every measure, Steven Soderbergh is an economical artist. That’s clear in the narrative turns of Magic Mike, one of his very best movies, and Logan Lucky, his imminent return from a self-imposed, half-serious retirement, wherein Tatum plays an unemployed laborer turned reluctant grand-scale thief. It’s also true of his aesthetic style and the staccato rhythm of his editing: he never wastes a shot nor does he allow the plotting to overgrow gestural notes of character or telling deliveries. For all the technical mastery that Soderbergh often showcases, his performers exude a rare freeness, an easy melding of persona with written character that brings about an unforced naturalness and resonance. The way Julia Roberts speaks, the way her face dims and brightens with dread and excitement, and the moments when she doesn’t speak at all says as much about who Erin Brockovich is as her work on the case against Pacific Gas and Electric of California in the early 1990s does.
One does not have to stride far to see allusions to Soderbergh’s perspective on his own chosen career in both his work with his actors and the way he often depicts the natural division of labor. There is only one major conflict in Contagion and Traffic – a lethal global pandemic and America’s unwinnable drug war, respectively – and the films come at them from a stratosphere of different political and economic perspectives. Michael Douglas’ judge might wield the most power in the fight to shape better domestic drug policy but losing the PR war decimates his influence, whereas the dirty, legally dubious bargains and the testimony that Benicio del Toro’s good cop can facilitate might do more for the real work of cutting down the cartels. And in Contagion, the familial love and protective nature felt by Laurence Fishburne’s CDC honcho shows an exploitable weakness for bloggers, vloggers, hot-take journalists, and the angry masses, while the real good work is done by a quiet scientist with lots of guts and not much of a social life, played by the luminous Jennifer Ehle. Just imagine if Fishburne was playing a director and Ehle was his cinematographer or set designer, and the value of the work remains, even if its urgency is moot in the face of a killer disease. And yet the jargon is always right, the pace is always steady and regularly electrifying, and the details of character, setting, expertise, and institutions are always plentiful without coming off as overly didactic.
With Logan Lucky, the division of labor is just as important between Riley Keough’s ace driver, Daniel Craig’s bombastic explosives expert, and Tatum’s fearless leader. The director’s instincts are as sharp as ever, which isn’t entirely surprising when you consider Soderbergh has been spending much of his retirement working on Cinemax’s groundbreaking The Knick, one of the best television programs of this or any other decade.
His natural habitat, however, is film, and in honor of his versatile career, I decided to rank all of Soderbergh’s films. (Mind you, had Behind the Candelabra, his magnificent Liberace biopic, received a theatrical release, it would have placed high here.) Even the most problematic of them offer learnable lessons about the business of making movies, putting him in a rarified class of American filmmakers: ones who make movies that are consistently both imminently entertaining and unexpectedly audacious.