I like football, and judging by the mammoth TV ratings, so does most of America. I’m not sure what it says about us as a society that we celebrate what’s arguably the most violent major sport*, but to be fair, plenty of fans also get caught up in the details. Like most sports, second-guessing is part of the game, and the guessing game is in full force in the NFL Draft. It’s where the indentured servitude of the NCAA gives way to players actually getting paid, but no one knows if a player is going to be a bang or bust. Unfortunately, Ivan Reitman‘s Draft Day may have the fiery setting, but the movie has trouble finding the spark. It’s fun to go inside the offices of NFL teams, but the energy is lost in a listless protagonist and tiresome subplots. Although it does manage to score at the end, the film is a tedious drive down the field.
Thirteen hours before the NFL Draft, Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) gets offered a trade from the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have the coveted number one overall pick in the draft, and they’re willing to trade it for three years of the Browns’ first round picks. An ambivalent Sonny agrees since he wants star QB Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), but as the day wears on and the draft closes in, Sonny starts wondering if he should stick with Bo, who has questionable character, or perhaps go with running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster) or defensive player Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman). Naturally, everyone has an opinion, including the owner Harvey Molina (Frank Langella), who wants a flashy choice, and obnoxious new coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary). And if that’s not enough of a headache, Sonny’s dealing with his secret girlfriend/Browns’ salary cap manager Ali (Jennifer Garner) being pregnant and his father’s recent death. Oh, and his father was the team’s beloved head coach.
The script feels bloated and anemic at the same time. There’s a sense that relying only on the drama of maneuvering draft picks isn’t enough to fill a movie, so the script needs to throw in a more hectic pace by having Sonny deal with three major life events on one day. It pushes the story into melodrama, especially when it’s revealed early on that Sonny fired his dad. Also, this information along with much of the back story is conveyed through the TV and radio in the background. What’s meant to be a timesaver comes off as incredibly distracting, and it reaches the point where you expect one of the commentator cameos to say, “Thank you for watching The Exposition Channel, your home for narrative shortcuts.”
Equally distracting is how Reitman chooses to handle phone conversations. In order to keep the picture feeling dynamic Reitman plays up the split screen by having it shift around, moving characters into the other’s space, and changing their foreground and background. While I understand the thinking in trying to make phone conversations, which are a large part of the drafting process, sound interesting, it doesn’t work. At one point, Sonny is talking to Bo’s old college coach (Sam Elliott), and the way Elliott is facing combined with the look on his face screams, “What the hell are you doing in my shot, Giant Costner?”
It doesn’t help that Sonny is a dull character, which is particularly disappointing when you consider Costner’s talent. He’s better than this part, and while we see plenty of Sonny’s frustration, we rarely see anything that indicates he’s well-suited for his job. He’s understandably desperate and under a lot of pressure, but he only seems to be able to take his frustration out on underlings rather than display a genius that will prevent him from being a Draft Day “donkey”.
When you put together a weak protagonist, gimmicky split screen, and forced subplots, Draft Day ends up feeling smaller than it should be. It’s a story that’s dwarfed by the impressive NFL facilities we walk through. It’s difficult to understand why this movie with this scale should be in theaters when films like Recount and Game Change land on HBO. But then you remember that this is the NFL, and if it wants to muscle its way into theaters it can. The movie does manage to hit a strong, albeit somewhat unearned crescendo, and while Draft Day isn’t a total blow out, it’s full of bad calls.
*I would give the slight edge to hockey since it actively encourages fighting.