At the NFL Draft, general manager Sonny Weaver has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he trades for the number one pick. He must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice on a life-changing day for a few hundred young men with NFL dreams.
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1hr 50min
by Christy Lemire
“Draft Day” reminded me a lot of “Moneyball,” understandably. Both are about the behind-the-scenes, stat-based wheeling and dealing that go on between big-league professional sports teams — number crunching rather than bone crunching.
While the more serious-minded “Moneyball” focused on the true story of how sabermetrics changed the way baseball teams assess players, the fictional “Draft Day” ultimately is about the way in which character can prevail over combine figures during one of the biggest events on the National Football League’s calendar. Both films offer a glimpse inside the executive offices and a chance to eavesdrop on conversations between some of the most powerful figures in sports. Fans and non-fans alike will find themselves getting caught up in the tension.
But “Draft Day” also reminded me of a totally different kind of movie: “The Devil Wears Prada.” If that juicy peek inside the fashion industry (with a withering supporting performance from Meryl Streep) was a chick flick guys could enjoy, “Draft Day” depicts a macho, muscular world in which women viewers can find themselves enthralled, as well. Of course I know a ton of passionate, knowledgeable female football fans, but “Draft Day” isn’t even really about football. It’s about coming into your own and finding clarity at a personal and professional crossroads. It’s about doing your job. It’s a day in the life.
Director Ivan Reitman — working from a script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman — makes that day crackle and come to life from the start. There’s something very old-fashioned about the tone here, about the lessons and hard-won victories (I’ve seen the word “Capra-esque” bandied about to describe it, which seems fitting). But “Draft Day” is also completely contemporary in its details, which gives it an air of authenticity. Much of it was shot at Radio City Music Hall during the actual NFL Draft, with commissioner Roger Goodell himself announcing the fictional players’ names. Veteran media figures like Chris Berman and Rich Eisen, along with former superstars like Deion Sanders, Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar, also make cameos as themselves. The access Reitman & Co. received is unprecedented — and man, did they spend some money on majestic aerial shots of empty stadiums across the country — but “Draft Day” doesn’t feel like a total infomercial.
In fact, it’s the abundance of drama off the field and away from the spotlight that becomes a distraction and weighs the film down. When it’s about Kevin Costner trying to prove all his detractors wrong as the beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns, it moves beautifully. As Sonny Weaver Jr., Costner gives one of the finest performances of lengthy career. He’s no-nonsense and a little beat-up. Much of the cocky swagger that’s defined Costner for so long is gone here. He doesn’t care if we like him — he’s just trying to survive.
Costner enjoys some nice chemistry with Jennifer Garner as the team’s salary-cap expert with whom he’s secretly involved (although what develops between them strains credulity and feels like one extra dramatic element too many). Her character is a great one — smart, confident, capable — a strong business woman and a strong football woman. I love that she exists in this testosterone-infused world. Garner also has such a likable presence that she isn’t wielding her character’s talents in a defensive way that suggests she’s got something to prove. She’s just damn good at what she does.
Then again, the film itself is surprisingly good — Reitman’s best since “Dave,” and that was back in 1993. After the early comedies he directed, which defined a generation — “Meatballs,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” — Reitman has not exactly been on a roll in recent years between “Evolution,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and (the decent) “No Strings Attached.” “Draft Day” may be overloaded with dramatic subplots over a single, eventful day, but it functions really entertainingly as both a comedy and a mystery.
From the moment he wakes up, Sonny is under pressure from all sides: his girlfriend, Ali, who doesn’t want to hide their relationship anymore; talk-radio idiots scrutinizing his every move; fans calling for his firing; fellow GMs cajoling him to make a trade for his No. 7 pick; arrogant team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who only cares about “making a splash,” as he puts it; opinionated Coach Penn (Denis Leary in comfortably quick-talking mode), who thinks he knows what’s best for the team; and players pushing themselves directly on Sonny’s private cell phone number (“42″ star Chadwick Boseman, hugely charismatic as an outside linebacker). Even Sonny’s mom (Ellen Burstyn) gets in on the act with a flair for the theatrical as she insists that Sonny take time to honor his father, the Browns’ beloved, recently deceased head coach.
The suspense steadily builds as Sonny charms and barters, bobs and weaves, but it reaches its peak when the Browns are on the clock and Sonny must make his decision. Will it be the highly touted Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a pretty boy who seems too good to be true? Boseman’s Vontae Mack, who’s got a big heart beneath his hotheaded persona? Or team legacy Ray Jennings (Houston Texans running back Arian Foster), who’d love to follow in the footsteps of his father/manager (Terry Crews, solid in a rare dramatic role)?
How Sonny gets there is nothing short of thrilling — a Hail Mary pass, if you’ll pardon the football metaphor — but he certainly connects.