The career of every filmmaker and actor, if they sustain any longevity, is peppered with various levels of success and failure. And while he’s had greater successes in other films and genres, among the movies for which Kevin Costner is most warmly remembered are a quartet of sports films—Bull Durham, For Love of the Game, Tin Cup and of course the iconic Field of Dreams, celebrating its 25th anniversary later this very month.
Affectionate reminiscences of that filmography inform director Ivan Reitman’s new dramedy, Draft Day. But the more recent and germane comparison may be Moneyball, another smart, nuanced and confident sports film that didn’t chase the drama of on-field action, but instead used its sport as a backdrop for a complicated, adult tale of striving and innovation. Draft Day isn’t nearly in the same class, and its aims are a notch or two lower—it’s less a disquisition on beta-masculinity than an engaging extension of the National Football League brand. But it works far more than it doesn’t, connecting with pleasure and heart.
Costner stars as Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the hapless Cleveland Browns. Heading into draft day, when teams select from the bumper crop of college football players, Weaver has a lot on his mind. His father, a legendary coach for the same organization, died just a week earlier, and his mother, Barb (Ellen Burstyn), seems to feel today is the day to have a tête-à-tête. Weaver also has a younger girlfriend, coworker Ali Parker (Jennifer Garner), who’s just informed him that she’s pregnant. He has a new coach, Vince Penn (Denis Leary), whom he doesn’t particularly like or respect, but is on the hook for a six-year contract at $5 million per year. And he has an owner, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who wants a sexy and marketable pick to help revitalize interest in his moribund brand.
After a gutsy trade up that mortgages the future, Weaver also has the top overall selection in the draft, which seems to put the Browns in the position to nab Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a consensus gold-star quarterback. Of course, this blindsides and rankles the Browns’ current quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling, whose casting and performance seem to subliminally channel a meta-commentary on being passed over for the big screen role of Superman), an eight-year veteran coming off of an injury rehabilitation.
Having seemingly leapt before full consideration, Weaver begins to have doubts about Callahan, however, a hesitation exacerbated by intrigue surrounding two other prospects—linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) and running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster)—with intangibles he seems drawn toward. As the clock ticks down to selection, Weaver has to measure head and heart, both within this class of potential draftees and within himself.
It’s true that Draft Day puts a sunny gloss on the NFL, which cooperated fully in the making of the film. It’s also true that certain small details stick out like a sore thumb for those who follow professional football. But if one mentally squints just a bit, ignoring risible particulars (the current Super Bowl champs initially having the first pick in the draft, for instance) and the manner in which things are condensed into the timeline of a single day for dramatic effect, there’s a lot to latch onto. No mere movie star vanity project, Draft Day projects as both a comedy of agitated character and frenzied workplace. The starchy, double-stuffed potato plot complications definitely indicate a film with its mind on four-quadrant connection, sure. But with that die cast, Reitman and his collaborators honor that commitment with compelling, realistically at-odds characterizations. (It surely helps that co-screenwriter Rajiv Joseph is a playwright.)
Costner, meanwhile, is the film’s anchor. The 59-year-old actor delivered a rooted performance just a couple months ago in 3 Days To Kill, an otherwise terrible movie. Draft Day serves his skills much better, not only because it’s more relatable, but because it casts him as a better dressed and more elite frazzled guy having a late-life crisis. To mix sports descriptions a bit, Costner puts a strong topspin on a lot of the dialogue—he’s emotional and charged. But it’s appropriate and revealing, since it connects to Weaver’s fraught state and the stakes of his decision-making.
Meanwhile, Reitman, cinematographer Eric Steelberg and editors Sheldon Kahn and Dana Glauberman concoct a lively visual scheme for the movie. With graphic overlays, aerial camerawork and active cuts, their mode of storytelling taps into the swirling energy of its titular day, and abets the narrative. Like its fatigued protagonist, Draft Day isn’t perfect. But, also like Weaver, it applies itself in dogged and consistent fashion, and the result is consistently entertaining.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him onTwitter and on his blog.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Welling, Josh Pence, W. Earl Brown, Rosanna Arquette
Release Date: Apr. 11, 2014