Considering that most of the people who will be interested in seeing the inside football comedy-drama Draft Day will be fans of the sport, it’s easy to imagine their potential disappointment. The National Football League draft of college and university players from around the United States is a massive deal, and yet not a single thing that happens within Ivan Reitman’s latest film could ever happen in reality since the film is populated with such illogical ideas about winning and business acumen that it’s beyond fantasy. However, if you are like myself and could care less about the draft and you realize that its place in sports as an institution is founded largely upon guesswork and hype, then you’ll probably get a kick out of it. By either stretch it’s still undeniably the best film Reitman has delivered since Dave in 1993. It’s not exactly a return to form, but at least there’s a major effort on his part. He also gets a great amount of help from leading man Kevin Costner, who seems like he’s extremely close to a career renaissance with what is now his third (and again, vastly best) movie of the year so far.
It’s 12 hours before the draft is due to start, the Seattle Seahawks have the coveted first pick in the draft, a guaranteed lock to get potential franchise quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). Not exactly in need of a quarterback but a better handle on the future, the Seattle GM is told to make a deal with the most desperate man he can find. That man happens to be Sonny Weaver (Costner), GM for the Cleveland Browns, who hold onto the number six pick.
Weaver’s life is in disarray professionally and personally. His head coach (Denis Leary) can’t stand him and resents being in Cleveland. His girlfriend and the team’s salary cap manager (Jennifer Garner) just told him she’s pregnant. He lost his sports legend father – a man that he controversially fired from the head coach position – a week ago and now his mother (Ellen Burstyn) won’t leave him alone. He’s vilified on talk radio and by TV pundits for always making the wrong decisions, and the team’s buffoonish, grandstanding owner (Frank Langella) has told Sonny to “make a splash” or he’s fired. Sonny takes the trade, giving up three number first round draft picks for the next three years to Seattle, even though his previously injured star quarterback (Tom Welling) is just fine for the team.
Of course, he doesn’t have to pick Callahan, and the bulk of the film is simply Sonny trying to decide the worth of one player over another. It’s nothing more than a variation on Moneyball with all of the brains ripped out of it and all the heart of Jerry Maguire put in its place. The story of men with vaguely middle aged existential crises in positions of authority here is hardly anything new, and while the story’s decidedly more “universally relatable” elements (like the bumbling, nerdy intern starting his new job on the worst day possible or every scene involving Burstyn, the only member of this stacked cast to be completely wasted) tend to fall flat, the rest of the movie is told with an energy and style that Reitman hasn’t been able to muster in quite some time.
The dialogue is rapid fire in ways that feel like a less erudite and pretentious Aaron Sorkin, and it’s a nice change of pace to watch people with actually well thought out concerns not trying to constantly act like the smartest person in the room all the time. The arguments over the direction of the team between Costner and Leary and Langella have a decidedly lived in quality that feels natural. These people have already been through this drill and they live it every year whether any of them want to admit it or not. The draft has always been one of the be all and end all moments of the calendar year for them, and despite there being an arguably big deal being made about Sonny’s potentially idiotic deal (and in the real world it would be rightfully seen as such) there’s a sense that both Costner and Leary’s characters have pulled the exact same moments before in their careers. They’re well crafted arguments made by determined people, albeit in a script that had little clue how their jobs should actually function within the team’s war room.
Aside from the wonderful chemistry he has with Leary and Garner (both of whom haven’t had roles this good or given on screen performances this entertaining in quite some time), Costner uses his natural charm to carry a lot of the film when things start to get overly chaotic or unbelievable. He’s plays Sonny as being passionate to a fault, but also as someone capable of maintaining sometimes zen-like levels of patience and cunning that can prove people wrong at just the right time. He’s making a likeable guy out of someone whose work only gets analyzed endlessly in the media when something goes wrong. He’s witty, confident, and warm only when he needs to be. It’s great work and a wonderful use of Costner’s strengths as a leading man without resorting to having him play the same sports guy he was in Bull Durham or Tin Cup.
As for Reitman, he’s actually OVER directing the film, which most of the time is a good thing and a fault the director has probably never been accused of. Since most of the film involves Sonny fielding phone calls from other GMs, pushy agents, and other players – one of the least cinematic ideas possible since traditionally no one wants to watch people talk on the phone or sit in front of a computer for two hours – Reitman makes sure his film is in constant motion. All of the film’s numerous phone calls are staged through constantly moving split screens where characters occasionally break the access line dividing them. The number of moments when characters or the camera are allowed to sit still are kept to a minimum and the film breezes by as a result. It’s an especially effective technique that often makes the viewer forget how potentially ludicrous the whole thing is, and it works wonderfully for the film’s lengthy and deal heavy climax. It could come across as a bit much, but that’s probably because Reitman is pushing himself to do something he hasn’t done before and the flash is appreciated here.
His casting choices also add to that flash with a plethora of big name talent coming on to take small, memorable roles designed to make an impact beyond just cameoing for no reason. Chadwick Boseman stands out as the smart, but personally troubled tight end Sonny really wants to draft. Sean Combs gets his slimeball on as a Callahan’s agent. Sam Elliot has a great scene as Callahan’s obstinate college coach. Pat Healy nicely sweats his way through a few scenes as a rookie GM that might be the only person Sonny can take advantage of.
The actual dynamics and events that happen during the film’s climax are both predictable and outlandish, but at least everyone seems to be having fun. It still feels like a pressure cooker environment despite the film having no idea what would actually be happening in one of those situations. To a large degree, it’s almost preferable to the real thing because the real thing would have most like been a lot more boring even with a countdown clock constantly in viewers’ faces. It’s an “inside baseball” movie without the insider status. Draft Day is certainly confused, but one can’t accuse it of not being consistently entertaining. It’s a feel good sports drama made for people who can’t stand feel good sports dramas.