Draft Day probably won’t be the best sports film you’ve ever seen, but it’s far from the worst. It’s a surprisingly entertaining and well-constructed film which, in addition to being chock full of cameo appearances by ESPN and NFL Network personalities and the commissioner of the NFL itself to satisfy NFL fans’ desire for authenticity regarding the workings and presentation of the annual NFL Draft, should also appeal to a wide audience thanks to its principal cast and deft, comedic direction from Ivan Reitman.
On the most important day of the calendar year considering his job title, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the NFL’s hard-luck Cleveland Browns, has a bit more on his plate than usual. His boss, the Browns’ owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) is anxious for him to make a big move that will excite fans and spur ticket sales. The team’s new head coach, Vince Penn (Denis Leary), doesn’t have much respect for how Sonny has run things previously in Cleveland, and thinks the Super Bowl Championship ring he wears makes his opinions on who the team should draft the only ones that matter. The recently-widowed wife of the Browns’ former coach, Barb (Ellen Burstyn), who also happens to be Sonny’s mother, has her own ideas about where Sonny’s priorities should be, both professionally and personally, and his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner) just told him that she’s pregnant.
Add to that the barrage of phone calls from rival GMs, sports agents, members of the media, and even draft day hopefuls wanting to know his plans, all before the draft even begins, and you’ve got some serious stress to manage. Welcome to Sonny’s life for the next 12 hours.
When the Seattle Seahawks come calling and offer up the 1st selection in the draft via a trade, Sonny’s plans for the day, along with the team’s long-prepared draft prep, are suddenly thrown into flux. It’s a deal that that can potentially change the Browns’ fortunes and help them land the most coveted player in the draft; what Seattle wants in return is ludicrous, but Sonny’s desperate and unable to dismiss the opportunity out of hand. He knows that the choices he makes next could cost him not only his job, but also the jobs of his staff, the team’s coaches, and the future of players, both rookie and veteran, whose fates are tied to the names that get sent to the podium once the draft begins. And then there’s the hopes of thousands of die-hard Browns fans in Cleveland who live and die football that their team will finally start to win more often than they lose, the ones who already crucifying him in calls to sports radio stations for perceived past poor choices and are ready to call for his head if he screws up again.
And you thought the players on the field faced pressure.
It’s no secret that the NFL in the 21st Century has become a year-round preoccupation with its millions of fans nationwide, and the real-life NFL Draft is arguably the most important event of the year that does not take place during the league’s regular season. So it stands to reason that a film about the draft and all its drama, intrigues, and power plays would certainly interest pro football fans. But what’s so surprising about the film Draft Day is just how enjoyable the film is for the ‘casual’ fan, or even the non-NFL fan who might be sitting in the theater because their date or their kids love football, or because they love the work of someone in the cast. A great deal of the credit for that appeal must go to screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, whose script is packed with enough NFL lingo to present the business side of the NFL with enough authenticity for the fans, but also provides plenty of interpersonal drama and lighter moments of comic relief for everyone else to enjoy.
Reitman, the veteran director perhaps best known for Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, keeps things moving in the film at a brisk pace, and frequently utilizes a clock on screen to remind us that we are, in fact, counting down to Sonny’s decision time. He and the film’s editors also utilize split-screen frequently and in creative ways to inject energy into and make the most of the many dialogues in the film that take place over cell phone connections. So much of the business of football is transacted by parties on opposite sides of the country, in many cases on cell phones, speakerphones, and conference calls, and Reitman and his team capture that experience, as well as the gamesmanship that goes along with it, in a way that’s fascinating both in the visual and the storytelling sense. Once you have a sense of what’s at stake in these discussions and negotiations, you won’t be able to tear your attention away from them.
Of course, none of this would really work without a cast to make it come to life in an engaging way, and a lead who can believably convey authority, responsibility, and good old-fashioned Midwestern American earnestness. Costner, whose done the veteran athlete thing in films so many times that it’s hard to imagine him doing anything other than maybe Westerns (his recent spy thriller work in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill, notwithstanding), now gets the chance to play a manager, a guy whose uniform is a suit and tie and who plays for stakes bigger than just one game or one season. The role still plays to his strengths as a performer, despite the game he’s playing being different, and in the end he delivers what audiences will expect to see and enjoy in a Kevin Costner film. He’s flawed, but likeable and relatable, and that’s just what audiences want from him after all these years.
Costner gets support plenty of help from the rest of the ensemble. In particular, Denis Leary stands out as a coach whose arrogant and abrasive personality should leave little doubt, at the very least in the minds of Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans who see the film, who the character’s real-life inspiration was (Hint: the real-life ex-NFL coach actually appears in the film as himself in an TV analyst role). Frank Langella also delivers yet another memorable supporting turn, and manages to do so throughout the entire film without ever once taking his sunglasses off. Chadwick Boseman (42) is also excellent here, channeling a bit of Cuba Gooding, Jr’s Jerry Maguire character Rod Tidwell in his portrayal of Vontae Mack, one of the draft’s many hopefuls who perhaps has a bit more riding on who drafts him and how high than your average college athlete.
All in all, Draft Day is a fine, entertaining film that’s dressed in the trappings of America’s most popular sport without actually being a sports film. Because it’s packaged just that way, it deserves at least a chance to entertain you even if you don’t tend to like sports films. It’s smart, it has a heart, and believe it or not, it should keep you guessing as to how things will finally play out, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of other films about athletes and sports.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Sam Elliott, with Ellen Burstyn and Chadwick Boseman. Directed by Ivan Reitman.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language and sexual references.
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