“Every Battle is Won Before it is Ever Fought.”
So goes the famous saying by Sun Tzu. That this quote appears prominently on a wall during numerous scenes of Ivan Reitman’s genial comedic drama Draft Day is no coincidence. It’s the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle way of establishing that the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing in NFL offices are as, if not more, vital to the success of a team than the decisions made on the field. It’s also evident that Reitman and company took this very approach to heart when they cast Kevin Costner as the film’s anchor.
Call me a Costner apologist but I’ve always found his brand of All-American earnestness appealing. He’s never been a great actor but there must be something said for star quality. His best days—when Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams, JFK and Bull Durham established him as the biggest star in the world—are unquestionably far behind him but the 59-year-old actor-director is nevertheless in a midst of a career resurgence. It may not be the McConaissance—Costner’s way too comfortable in studio fare to take those risks—but the humanity that he brought to one-dimensional roles in Man of Steel, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and most recently 3 Days to Kill, no matter how stupid, vile or incoherent those films were, are witness to why I’ll always find something to admire in his work.
To his credit, it’s this same winning affability that lifts Draft Day from a middling film to a delectable one. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the struggling Cleveland Browns. While not exactly Jeff Ireland, Sonny’s been, to put it lightly, a contentious figure in his hometown. His two-year tenure with the team has been marred with losing records and management failures; the most controversial of these being his decision to fire the team’s beloved long-time coach (and his father) Sonny Weaver Sr.
On the morning of the NFL draft, Sonny, desperate to change things up, trades his first round picks for the next three years to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for the number one draft pick, widely expected to be Heisman-winning quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). While some, like the team’s volatile owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), are overjoyed with this decision (Calahan could mean big revenue for the team), others, like the team’s vain new coach Penn (Denis Leary), young NFL hopefuls Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) and Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), and the Browns’ recovering quarterback Brian Drew (Tom Welling), are visibly upset for a myriad of reasons.
If those problems weren’t enough, Sonny keeps getting fed rumors from former associates that golden boy Callahan is a liability and a potential bust. There’s also the matter of Ali (Jennifer Garner), Sonny’s girlfriend and the team’s business manager, who is pissed at him for keeping their relationship a secret, and his crazy mother (Ellen Burstyn) who chastises him for destroying their family. As the hour of the draft nears, Sonny has to placate all these conflicts on top of negotiating and cajoling his way through various dealings and back-dealings with his staff as well as other GMs, all who are desperate to get their hands on Bo, Vontae and others.
As you may have deciphered, there’s a lot going on in Draft Day. For the most part, it works. This is because screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, whose intelligent script landed on the top of the Black List in 2012, are smart to keep the tone light while keeping things moving at a breezy pace. Reitman and film editors Dana E. Glauberman and Sheldon Kahn also incorporate nifty usages of split screens, swipes, pans and dissolves to keep the momentum going. Even if the technique overstays its welcome in the last act with characters spilling over their halves of the screen like in comic book panels, it does its job to liven up the largely interior-set, dialogue-driven drama. More importantly, it makes things easy to digest for a non-NFL initiate like yours truly.
With its focus on the business aspect of sports—the number-crunching, management and the battle of egos—Draft Day will inevitably draw comparisons to Bennett Miller’s sterling Moneyball. What made that Oscar-nominated film overcome sports movie clichés and turn it into something unforgettable was the way Miller, Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zaillian and Brad Pitt were able to tap into the soul of Billy Beane and his players on top of the statistical elements of the script. You felt the heartbreak when Beane suffered a personal loss. You felt the joy when the Oakland A’s kept winning.
The opposite is true of Reitman’s film. It’s best when it focuses on the business, not Sonny’s internal struggles. It may have its heart in the right place but whenever Joseph and Rothman’s script does delve into his personal life or even the lives of the players, those moments feel like detours, shoehorned into the film for the sake of adding drama. The results are ham-fisted at best, trite at worst. A lot of the fault lies in the screenplay’s by-the-numbers format but Reitman is equally responsible. He may have been an interesting director in the ’80s (Ghostbusters, Stripes) but output nowadays (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached) represents the very mushy center of middling mainstream Hollywood.
The filmmaker’s fidelity to the formulaic nature of the plot and his reluctance to critique or even take any stance against the NFL’s darker sides ends up making the film look like a feature-length commercial for the draft sanctioned by the league and ESPN. With the actual 2014 Draft less than a month away, the copious glamour shots of franchise stadiums and NFL cameos, it definitely has the sheen of one. In spite of these hiccups, Draft Day manages to chug along and engage. It may never rise to the level of Moneyball, the movie it clearly aspires to be, but with Costner’s committed performance at its core and likeable turns from a deep bench of supporting performers (Boseman and Langella are the standouts), it suffices as a diversion in the dog days before the Hollywood’s onslaught of summer blockbusters.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Rajiv Joseph, Scott Rothman
Principal Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman
Editing: Dana E. Glauberman, Sheldon Kahn
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: John Debney
Running time: 109 minutes
Distributors: Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and sexual references