Draft Day (United States, 2014)April 10, 2014
Draft Day is a sports movie that's almost entirely about the business of sports as opposed to what transpires on the field. This isn't the first film to make that claim - Jerry Maguire and Moneyball were more about the goings-on in the front office - but it is arguably the most focused. The film looks at the 12-hour span immediately preceding the NFL draft, taking us into the back rooms of several franchises and exposing their moves and motives from a strategic perspective. The owners and GMs are like generals and they all have their battle plans. The material is compelling although there's little doubt it has been dumbed-down and sanitized for universal consumption. There's also a sense that this is little more than a 110-minute commercial for the NFL, going beyond product placement to lionization. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine anyone who isn't a football geek (or a rabid fantasy football player) caring much about Draft Day even though, when one looks deeply enough, this is as much about the personalities of the characters as it is about the trades they're involved in.
Kevin Costner, who has been on the comeback trail of late, plays Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. This is his third year on the job and his tenure thus far has been rocky. His dad, a Browns legend, died only a week ago and he's trying to keep his personal feelings at bay while preparing for the draft. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and co-worker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), informs him that she's pregnant. Adding to the pressure is the fact that the team owner, Harvey Molina (Frank Langella), wants to make a "big splash." The guy Sonny wants to draft, Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), may be a difference-maker on defense but he won't sell tickets. Then along comes opportunity. The Seattle Seahawks own the #1 overall pick that would presumably be used to snare can't-miss prospect Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). They're willing to make a trade at the "right price." That turns out to be a king's ransom - three consecutive #1 picks - a cost that infuriates Browns' head coach, Vince Penn (Denis Leary). But, under pressure from all sides, Sonny makes the deal… then spends the next 8 hours wondering if he did the right thing and trying to figure out if there's another move he can make.
Costner, who has never been the most emotive of actors, is perfect for this role. His portrayal of Sonny expresses what one might expect from an NFL GM. Professionally, he's driven to win and willing to take risks that might seem insane. Personally, he fumbles the ball with alarming frequency. His relationship with Ali is a perfect example. He obviously loves her but he can't find the words to express his feelings. Jennifer Garner is strong and it's nice to see that the character functions as more than a stereotypical "love interest." Other notable actors with supporting performances include Denis Leary as Coach Penn, Ellen Burstyn as Sonny's mother, Frank Langella as the publicity-loving owner, Chadwick Boseman as the star linebacker, and Josh Pence as the can't-miss prospect.
The director is Ivan Reitman who, throughout his career, has become synonymous with comedies. This is the man who was behind the cameras for Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Twins, and Kindergarten Cop. Reitman hasn't done much in the past decade and now he has emerged with a film so unlike anything he's done before that only the credits verify his association with the project. This isn't a comedy/drama, it's a straight drama. Humorous moments are downplayed. There are some in-jokes, like Sean Combs playing a smarmy agent, but nothing is overt. Still, there's a soft edge to everything that makes one wonder whether the film would have seemed more substantive with a hard-hitting filmmaker in the director's chair. The predictability of the narrative is also disappointing; Draft Day is devoid of true surprises. One can map out what's going to happen based on which supporting characters get screen time.
Without an insider's perspective, it's impossible to say how closely the events depicted in Draft Day replicate what really goes on. The sense of verisimilitude is strong but there's also a feeling that things have been greatly simplified. Nothing on-screen comes close to sullying the NFL's reputation and that calls into question how much influence the league had over what appears in the movie. "Fair and balanced" is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
The bottom-line question is whether the drama inherent in the narrative overcomes the odious, relentless NFL cheerleading. At times, it's a tough call but, on balance, the story wins out. Sonny is an interesting character and the adroit way he eventually manipulates his situation generates the urge to stand up and cheer. Reitman's take on the business of sports at least encourages us to think twice before calling a GM an "idiot." Then again, maybe not…
Draft Day (United States, 2014)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Josh Pence
Screenplay: Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment