The only entity a rabid fan of professional sports feels entitled to verbally dismantle as harshly as their favorite pastimes is a major motion picture about them. Scrutinized and dissected as pro sports films are for achieving or failing to portray a 1:1 depiction of the subject matter, these films are simultaneously allotted an unprecedented amount of “improbable” in their plot structures due to the unmatched unpredictability from the real-world events that inspire them. And perhaps no other actor in Hollywood has put together as credible a resume to perpetuate inconceivable scenarios in sports films as Kevin Costner. After three very successful baseball films (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game) and a cult-classic golf film (Tin Cup), Costner now takes on the current “800lb Gorilla” of professional sports, the NFL, with Draft Day.
Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner, Man of Steel) is the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. In the third year of a rebuilding process, Weaver is offered the opportunity to acquire the #1 Pick in the 2014 NFL Draft via a trade. Weaver has a very clear idea of how he wants to build his team but faces immense pressure from the owner (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon), head coach (Denis Leary, The Amazing Spider-Man), his family and the fans to take the team in different directions, all the while trying to maintain a secret, personal relationship with a fellow co-worker (Jennifer Garner, Dallas Buyers Club). Weaver can make his boss and the fans happy by creating a “big splash” with a trade for the #1 Pick, but it could come at the cost of his own integrity and the foreseeable future of the team.
Unlike his other ventures into sports-themed cinema, Costner now at the age of 64 takes on the role of team executive. And even as a General Manager, Costner is still able to infuse an immediate credibility of residing in a sports environment. However, Draft Day’s script does not inspire such confidence. In sports, good or bad timing can mean the difference between a championship and a last-place finish. The same can be said for film releases, Draft Day probably would've been universally heralded anytime before September 23, 2011, the day Moneyball was released. It’s usually difficult to compare films based on sports due to the medley of different factions within the genre itself, e.g. dramas, comedies, team, individual, armature, pro, etc. Many claim that Major League (1989) is the best sports film ever made, but just as many will also declare a comedy can’t compare to a film as moving as Hoosiers (1986) or Field of Dreams (1989). With Draft Day and Moneyball, there is no confusion; they are exactly the same type of film in a very new sect of the sports movie genre that focuses on the off-field characters. Like Moneyball, Draft Day begins with the intention of setting a real-world tone and even though it’s not based on a true story like Moneyball, it needed to pursue that illusion. As the film progressed it drifted farther and farther away from a grounded, pressure-cooker environment where actions have weighted consequences, into a “Hail Mary,” home-run-in-the-bottom-of-the-ninth type of climax.
Draft Day does get big “high five” for not catering the story to the masses. Even though the NFL is the most popular sport in the country, those who do not already comprehend the value of draft picks or the basic rules of the Draft will not find any tutorials in the context of the film. The story assumes you are already a big fan of the game and makes no apologies if you can’t keep up with the lingo or plot points. The NFL Draft is the highest produced and most watched non-action, annual sporting event. Anyone even slightly interested in this film has probably absorbed multiple hours of the broadcast through osmosis alone, placing an emphasis on providing a realistic depiction of the actual NFL Draft as the primary hurdle for the film to clear. In this aspect alone, Draft Day is flawless, recruiting the real-life commentators to play themselves in a faux ESPN presentation with all the trimmings and boldface graphics.
Unfortunately, that’s where the optimism for the rest of the film halts as abruptly as a team doctor uttering the words “Achilles tendon.” Moneyball was able to capture an innate, genuine feel of a pro sports team work environment and how powerful executives deal with each other, much like a previous Costner film, Bull Durham, was able to accomplish with amateur athletes. The character of Sonny is written well enough for Costner to make him very relatable, but the reactions and dialogue between him and his counterpart GMs bordered on parody. General Managers in the film that are not portrayed by the real-life individuals, come off as either hard-nosed, arrogant jerks, or a wet-behind-the ears newbie who was given the keys to the franchise the morning of the Draft. Missing from the film was an air of cold confidence, an attitude that they were above the pressure of the moment while concealing raw nerves underneath.
Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) chose to use an abundant amount of split screens, which really only worked when actual NFL game footage was being utilized during a character’s recollection of a poignant moment in football history. Seemingly trying to bring some innovation to an exhausted storytelling device, these split screens did not abide by the standard physical boundaries, characters were able to pass through and overlap each other, which was certainly unique, but it added nothing to the subject matter of the film and was ultimately a distracting gimmick.
Even though Draft Day was bestowed with “first round” talent like Costner, Reitman, Garner, Langella and Leary, it only managed to execute like a .500 team. Its competition is not vast, however it does happen to include a “Best Picture” Academy Award nominee, comparatively falling short in terms of character development, dialogue and a finale that yanks the story’s roots from a plane of realism and relies on the laurels of past sports movie miracles.