DRAFT DAY Review: A Solid Second-Round Pick
I was never much of a football kid; baseball was my major sport of choice when I was growing up. Some of my fondest memories from my pre-teens involve playing in little league, collecting baseball cards, and spending a lot of baseball time with my grandfather, either having a catch in the back yard after dinner or listening to Phillies games on the radio at night. When the 1980s rolled around, my interest in our National Pastime was still strong, but my cinematic interests had surpassed that, and hours spent on grassy surfaces became hours spent in front of screens. Fortunately, both of my interests were well served as the decade offered some of the greatest baseball films ever made. In fact, the Baseball Almanac (an organization that should know) places five baseball films from the 1980s on its list of “Top Ten Baseball Movies.” Two of those five, Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989), not only reside at #1 and #2 (respectively), they both star Kevin Costner.
Costner’s film career was born in the 1980s and he had a great decade, anchored by those two films. In the ’90s, he took a brief hiatus from baseball and starred in one of film’s great golf movies, Tin Cup (1996), before returning to the diamond in the okay For Love of the Game (1999). Any actor with that kind of sports movie pedigree (including 1985’s bicycling film, American Flyers) gets the benefit of the doubt from me when he decides to make another. Such is the case in 2014, as Costner is back on the field of play, trading diamonds and sand traps for pigskin and gridiron.
In Draft Day, Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Sonny is about to live the most stressful day of his life. In addition to the usual pressure that comes with the day when college football’s top recruits become instant millionaires, Sonny’s girlfriend/team salary cap guru, Ali (Jennifer Garner), reveals she is pregnant; and Sonny’s boss, team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), threatens Sonny’s job if he doesn’t “make a splash” at the draft. To make that splash, Sonny makes what appears to be an unthinkable trade with the Seattle Seahawks: the Browns get this year’s #1 overall pick, ensuring them blue chip quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), and Seattle gets the Browns’ first round pick this year and for two years after that. The fans and sports talk radio gasbags might love it for Callahan, but that trade makes a lot of other people unhappy because it trades away the future. That list of people includes the team’s new on-field boss, Coach Penn (Denis Leary); Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn), who is also the widow of Sonny’s father, a legendary Browns coach; draft day hopefuls Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) and Ray Jennings (Arian Foster); and Browns current starting QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling).
As the day progresses, Sonny must remain calm in the eye of the football storm. He knows that despite outside pressure from the dissenters, he must stand by his decision. Or must he?
There’s an expression used on the NFL’s draft day: “You are on the clock.” It means that when it’s each team’s turn to make their selection, they have 10 minutes in which to do so, and there is an official clock that counts down that 10 minutes. The existence of this clock – the notion that a team, for all of its preparation, has 10 minutes to make official a decision that could have years of ramifications and cost millions of dollars for nothing in return – adds an element of pressure to each moment. Draft Day smartly leverages this time element and (with the exception of a brief epilogue) puts the entire story “on the clock” by taking place on one day and one day only. That countdown clock, which starts at about 13 hours before the draft begins, is flashed onscreen throughout the film, reminding us that this is not a story with an ending that will happen when it happens; it will end when the clock stops ticking. This is used to excellent effect throughout the film, and while director Ivan Reitman is no Fred Zinneman, that aspect of the film certainly has a High Noon feel to it.
Once inside the timed pressure cooker of an NFL franchise on draft day, the film smartly goes beyond the day-of dealings that happen between teams and shows exactly what kind of pressure an NFL general manager feels on that day. He doesn’t just answer to the team’s owner, who is spending the money, he answers to the head coach who is expected to win with the team that is assembled, the rest of the team’s staff that put in countless hours of research and offered immeasurable consult, current players whose jobs might be at risk if a hotshot rookie is drafted, potential draftees and their agents, and the fans who spend their hard-earned money and expect victory, or at least an honest effort, in return. The film does a great job of making me not want that job.
One of the smaller details I like about what the film does (or doesn’t do) includes the fact that the team is the Cleveland Browns, one steeped in football tradition but certainly not one of the glamorous teams of the NFL (like the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots). And while the film is ultimately a giant commercial for the NFL, I never felt like I was being exploited. There were very few actual NFL people onscreen, a relief from what I feared would be real executives mugging for the camera. I was also happy that the film kept ESPN and its on-air talent to a minimum; the trailer suggests otherwise, which was a concern of mine going in. If I want those talking heads, I’ll watch ESPN. Speaking of ESPN and positive observations, this is not a highlight reel-heavy film. There is some archival footage used of old football games, as well as college “footage” made for this film, but all is used sparingly and in the context of the story.
With all of this good suspense and compelling how-the-sausage-is-made storytelling, I was surprised that Reitman and Company were so lacking in confidence that they felt compelled to include some of the most contrived melodrama this side of the Lifetime Movie Network. Subplots include Sonny’s relationship with his late father, Sonny’s relationship with his abrasive mother, Ali’s pregnancy and how she and Sonny handle it, a surprise appearance by Sonny’s ex-wife for no real reason, and a bit thrown in about Vontae Mack’s sister. It’s all excessive and mostly unnecessary. I say “mostly” because the general formula of any sports film includes some element of the protagonist’s personal life, which is supposed to add layers to the character. But there is so much going in Sonny’s house while there is so much going on in the Browns’ house, layers aren’t added so much as piles are dumped. The sum of it both strains credulity and suggests the filmmakers are pandering to that Lifetime audience with the hope of selling a few more tickets. These scenes bring the best parts of the film to a staggering halt.
Also suggesting that Reitman lacked confidence in his material is his excessive use of screen wipes. For a sports movie, there really isn’t a lot of sport that goes on, so perhaps Reitman is trying to compensate for that lack of action by making scene transitions and split-screen conversations as dynamic as possible. If you look at the image above (with Costner and the fictional Kansas City GM played by Wallace Langham), you can see Costner’s right shoulder overlapping into Langham’s shot. This happens ALL THE TIME in the film, to the point that it becomes a considerable distraction. Characters in motion routinely leave their “box,” cross over the person who is in his own box, and settle into a new box on the other side of the screen. Screens already split into two become three and four and go back to two again. It’s a little startling (and admittedly interesting) at first, but it eventually becomes tired and gimmicky, looking like a cross between ’70s cop show scene transitions and two-dimensional comic book art trying to look three-dimensional by having characters “breach” their panels.
Costner and Boseman (who is woefully underused here) are the standout performers of the film, which ultimately does more right than it does wrong.
I’ll return to baseball for one more reference in this football movie review. Draft Day is to football movies what 2011’s Moneyball is to baseball movies: a film that takes you deep behind the scenes of how a key aspect of the business of the sport works, all the while keeping you as interested as you would be in the sport itself.