The Biggest Day of His Life…
Draft Day has an identity crisis. It’s not sure if it wants to be a 2014 NFL infomercial or exist in an authentically alternate universe. This dilemma is symptomatic of most sports films. Do you use real professional teams but replace their rosters with actors? Or do you create a fake landscape of franchises and logos? Part of the problem with Draft Day is that it chooses the former but never commits to it. In this movie, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks were the worst team in the league, and the Dallas Cowboys are deemed perennial winners. It really belongs in 1995.
The mid-nineties nostalgia seems logical only because Kevin Costner is the film’s star. Those were his magic years. Since 1999’s For Love of The Game, though, Costner has lent himself to marginal roles and witless comedies with the occasional aggressive outlet (Hatfields and McCoys). He’s seasoning into his gray hairs now. Over the last decade he’s started to inhabit his wrinkles. He’s always had that rugged appeal, a handsome face covering a body that seemed imminent to break down. Somehow he’s still been whipping it around violently in two spy action thrillers earlier this year. It’s because Costner is the rare movie star who looks like he could be an aging athlete. He can pull off throwing a baseball and sell his pain. When his arm nearly fell off in Yankee Stadium, he battled through the injury and finished his perfect game. Kelly Preston was his reward.
In Draft Day his reward is Jennifer Garner, playing a pretty-faced salary capologist for the Cleveland Browns. It seems like every Costner sports movie requires an invested love interest. Susan Surandon instituted the dynamic in Bull Durham, believing in “The Church of Baseball.” Amy Madigan took the torch as the dedicated, rational wife in Field of Dreams before tossing it to a golf-enthused Rene Russo in Tin Cup. The relationship chemistry in these personal athletic journeys is the emotional staple, and often revolves around a final momentous decision: a game-ending strikeout or a miraculous fairway shot. Here, it’s making a splash in the NFL draft.
Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the Browns’ general manager, who inherited the position from his deceased father. He’s dealing with a lot of anxiety on the most important April day of his life. He has job pressure from his owner (Frank Langella) to make a big move with the second overall pick. He has family pressure from his mother who judges his every move. He has paternal pressure from his girlfriend Ali (Garner), who has just told him that she’s pregnant. Coloring the sidelines is a loudmouth Dennis Leary as the newly acquired head coach from Dallas and Chadwick Boseman (42), a hopeful, arrogant college linebacker with aspirations to go to Cleveland. Arian Foster also makes his acting debut aiming for a first-round selection.
Director Ivan Reitman, with co-writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, chooses to tell this story within the hectic confines of one day. He uses a lot of split screens and countdown timers like we’re watching an episode of 24, as though a bomb is going to explode when commissioner Roger Goodell takes the podium. It seems like Reitman’s just trying to stay artistically cohesive, maintaining ESPN’s aesthetics in line with their brand. He pushes unnecessary NFL Films highlight packages and every talking head available between Mel Kiper Jr. and Deion Sanders.
This is really just a melodramatic sitcom masking as a thriller. It’s hard to sell the fate of a Cleveland General Manager and his personnel these days, so some overacting seems acceptable. At one point, the Browns’ starting quarterback (Tom Welling) hears Weaver has traded with the Seahawks for the number one pick. The Browns can potentially attain Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) the best quarterback in the country from Wisconsin. It’s too much for their current starter. He throws a temper tantrum in the locker room and then demands a trade.
Costner has the difficult task of managing all of these circus performances. It’s disappointing because he’s scrambling through the whole movie stressed and fidgety. Only in the closing moments does the fire come back and the humor erupt. It comes with a dedication to integrity. In Bull Durham, when he reminisces about a homerun that his pitcher (played by Tim Robbins) has just given up, it plays as both comical and threatening (Don’t shake off the fastball again). The same energy is evoked on the phone with other general managers, miming leverage and making wisecracks while swapping multitudes of picks like he’s playing Madden.
Draft Day is the rare football movie that doesn’t take place directly on the field. Instead it would rather explore Jennifer Garner playing another bland girlfriend and mediator to misplaced male testosterone. Football movies need the gridiron though at a certain point. Moneyball- its diamond counterpart-worked because baseball is centered on numbers and individual statistics. It worked because the drama was about watching a team unfold from the front office the entire season. It didn’t make drama from choosing untested college prospects. Browns fans know a good draft promises nothing.
You need the proper mix. Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone’s feverish acid-trip football frenzy, comes close. It created an alternate universe based in Miami and shifted from Cameron Diaz’s cerebral owner’s box to the expletive-ridden sidelines manned by Al Pacino. Stone gave Diaz a credited, competent feminine authority. She walked into the locker room around nude male athletes without hesitation. When Garner says things like, “I’m a football girl,” it’s hollow and disconnected. Prove it, please.
Reitman has done the opposite of Stone though. He’s made an agreeable film. Stone, and even a director like Peter Berg with Friday Night Lights, is trying to create a volatile, visceral reaction to polarizing levels. Draft day for a football general manager is as close as Reitman can get to that excitement. It works, but it’s a quicker, less potent high.
Draft Day is out this weekend, which historically would be in short anticipation of the real NFL draft. But the NFL moved its schedule this year. The draft is in early May now. The dissonance is noticeable, the movie’s reality consistently skewed. Just like the implied success of the 2014 Browns.