If there's one actor most closely associated with the sports movie genre, it's Kevin Costner. If there's a guy who has exemplified the middle-aged, lousy in life but king on the field archetype it's him, and he's done it unabashed classics like Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. But even in the underrated golf comedy, Tin Cup, Costner has excelled at this very specific sort of character, which is why it's been so strange to see him away from it for so long. For me at least, it's a role I've sorely missed seeing, but never would I have thought to see it re-emerge in a football dramedy/thriller like Draft Day.
In a sense, all of those earlier Costner films are a form of wish fulfillment. Wish fulfillment for guys, anyway, where the breaks go exactly right on the green or the home run sails over the fence with glorious perfection, all while some gorgeous woman cheers on from the stands. Draft Day kind of follows that same pattern, except replace the stands with an office and the home runs with draft picks. Think the behind-the-scenes insider jargon of Moneyball mixed with the Cleveland woe of Major League, all wrapped in the effortless branding and gigantic egos of the NFL.
Costner proves he's a natural of the gridiron as much as the baseball diamond, playing Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver, Jr. Sonny's life is in disarray, and it couldn't happen at a worse time. His father, the team's legendary head coach he was forced to fire a couple of seasons ago, has recently passed away. The tension this decision has created with his mother (Ellen Burstyn) is thicker than an offensive tackle; he's been having a secret romance with the team's salary cap analyst, Ali (Jennifer Garner), who has just revealed she's pregnant; and all of this occurs just as the NFL Draft is mere hours away. Coming off a mediocre year plagued by injury, Sonny is basically given an ultimatum by the team owner (Frank Langella) to "make a splash" at the Draft or risk getting canned.
While the life decisions Sonny is forced to make, like choosing whether he even wants to be a father, are familiar and play out with few surprises, it's the wheeling 'n dealing of big time professional football that really moves the chains. It's new ground for Ivan Reitman, the legendary director of many comedy staples in the 1980s, and he overcompensates when trying to capture the frenetic pace and anxiety of NFL war rooms where every decision literally means millions of dollars. Through a combination of 24-style ticking clocks and split screens that would make Jack Bauer throw up his arms in protest, Reitman zips us through the many internal and external factors intruding in on Sonny's decisions. Taking the ultimate gamble, he decides to mortgage the team's future, trading away three future #1 draft picks to secure the top spot right now. Not only does it send ripples through the league, but what should have made his choice easier only gets tougher.
The consensus #1 choice, and would fit the owner's splash-making criteria, is blue chip quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a pretty boy with a hot shot agent (P. Diddy, appropriately) and possible character issues. On the other end of the spectrum is the guy Sonny wants, linebacker and tackling machine Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a natural team leader and a genuinely good guy. There's also the hometown boy, running back Ray Jennings (played by Houston Oilers RB Arian Foster), whose father (Terry Crews) played for the Browns. Choosing Callahan would make the franchise happy, including their arrogant Super Bowl-winning coach (Denis Leary), but is it necessarily the right thing to do?
So yeah, this is one of those alternate realities where things like morals and personal codes of honor intrude in the high-stakes world of NFL decision making. Like that exists! It's often hokey and preachy, frequently serving as a self-aggrandizing advertisement for the NFL and the purity of its wealthy players. When one player, who is destined to make millions even if he drops a few spots, laments how badly his family needs him to be the #1 pick so he can make more, it's a little tough to sympathize with his "plight". But Sonny is a guy you genuinely want to see succeed, and Costner gives him all of the rough edges we've seen in most of his other genre characters. His chemistry with Garner, at her feistiest for the first time in way too long, is playful and a lot of fun until it comes time to make some tough choices. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might see a little of himself (okay, a lot) in the performance given by Langella.
But at the same time, Draft Day is an authentic window into the NFL like we've never seen before on the silver screen. There's a certain thrill in actually seeing your team represented as part of the story; their actual team uniforms, logos, stadiums, and players are all there. Even league commissioner Roger Goodell shows up, only to get booed by the Draft's typically rowdy fans. It really does feel like you're being let in on a secret peek behind the curtain, or sitting right there at Radio City Music Hall. While Draft Day is hardly a Super Bowl champ, NFL fans aching for some football will want to run and check it out.