The NFL Draft is so inherently exciting for sports fans that to release a “ticking clock” thriller about the day leading up to the event feels less like a good story idea than it does a way to generate excitement for the upcoming event, while cramming in as much team merchandise as the producers will allow. Draft Day, a new film from director Ivan Reitman, is only intermittently exciting and boasts few surprises, as well as a flat performance from Kevin Costner.
In a move that some sports movie fans may consider sacrilege, Costner has abandoned baseball for football. Here, he plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., an ambitious but hot-headed Cleveland Browns general manager trying to deal with the fallout of a potentially shoddy trade that he agreed to 12 hours before the NFL draft. He took Seattle’s first-round draft pick spot for the Browns’ first-round selections for the next three years. The player prophesied to get that berth is Heisman Trophy winner Bo Callahan (The Dark Knight Rises’ Josh Pence), a goofy quarterback with some questionable behavioural tics that give Sonny second thoughts.
However, even if Cleveland picks up Callahan, they will have to drop their old quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), a strong player currently at his best after recovering from injury. Browns coach Penn (Dennis Leary) is royally pissed that Sonny made this call without consulting him first. (During their confrontations, Draft Day‘s PG-13 rating starts to show, as we never see the characters seethe into each other with any profane enthusiasm.) If the Browns pick the hotshot QB – and stern team owner Harvey Molina (Frank Langella) would love to, hoping to get the team back on track and “make a splash” at the draft – then they may not get two other players who could be valuable for the team. These athletes are linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman, just as appealing as he was in last spring’s 42) and running back Ray Jennings (real-life Houston running back Arian Foster, who’s better than average for an athlete turned actor).
Reitman, working with screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, clearly has more interest in the behind-the-scenes workings of the league, from the off-the-record phone calls between GMs to the coaches gathering around to unearth new realizations from game film, than in the periphery aspects of the story. There is a strained romantic subplot with Jennifer Garner, who plays Ali, a numbers-crunching member of Sonny’s staff who is also Sonny’s office fling. Normally, the two staffers would not deal with their bedroom business during work hours, but it turns out that Ali is pregnant and so there is another deadline for Sonny to meet.
There is also family drama here, as Sonny deals with the recent death of his father, who was once the team’s coach. Ellen Burstyn stops by as well, playing Sonny’s mom, to punch in this character detail even further by berating her son to make his dad proud. (No, Draft Day does not end with Sonny Jr. and Sonny Sr. playing a game of catch on an Iowa cornfield.) Unfortunately, these subplots lag the pace of what should be a brisk, quick-witted, ‘inside football’ affair. However, even without these elements, Draft Day would still not be very invigorating.
Costner is mopey and miscast as Sonny, who often looks adrift and full of animosity. Sonny is very passive until the draft sparks; usually, it is his office staff pressing him to check into the trio of players he is deciding between. One gets the feeling that the Browns have collapsed around this indecisive figurehead, and it may be due to Costner’s fatigued performance. A protagonist who avoids action is also a strange choice to centre a sports film around.
A ticking clock often appears onscreen to show us how much time is left until the first round of the draft begins. However, there is not even enough tension to warrant this stylistic stab at generating suspense. Thankfully, Draft Day saves itself from total blandness during the actual draft sequence. When Sonny starts making last-minute deals with other managers as his team goes “on the clock,” Reitman’s film achieves a briskness and suspense that recalls the opening scenes from Jerry Maguire. Another sequence that works well is a montage of the resilient Browns fans, continuing to cheer for their team despite the near-absence of victory. Some of the footage was staged, but it is so smoothly attached to actual shots of disappointed diehards that we do not realize it. Here, the film rings true, as Sonny’s mission to save football in Cleveland is not very different from what the managers of that team currently aspire to do.
More often than not, Draft Day feels like a feature-length commercial for the NFL. Every time we move the scenery to a different city’s football team management, the screen fills with a sparkling, sunny exterior shot of the city’s downtown, followed by a subtitle that the town is “home of the [insert logo of team name here].” I doubt Buffalo – also known as “home of the Bills” – will ever appear on the big screen ever again bathed in such warm hues. The offices of each team, meanwhile, are cluttered with jerseys, caps, desktop backgrounds and more gratuitous marketing opportunities than one could imagine.
Draft Day is one of those films where there are just as many people in the end credits listed as playing “himself” or “herself” as there are fictional characters. (Several sportscasters and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell show up here.) With such involvement from figures in the sports world, though, why bother with a lame, predictable script? Why couldn’t the NFL had made a documentary about the Cleveland Browns (or any other beleaguered sports franchise) trying to reverse their fortunes on the field during the draft? A plaque in Sonny’s office reminds us of the draft’s importance, stating that “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.” This adage also works for cinema, since every film’s quality can be determined before it is ever shot due to what the script holds. Too bad Draft Day didn’t take this advice to heart, as it is predictable and only sporadically exciting. Let us hope that Hollywood trades Costner back to baseball.
Lacking feeling and momentum, Draft Day seems like it would be more successful as an ad for this year's NFL draft, rather than a piece of worthwhile entertainment.