There have been countless movies made about football, but there has never been a movie made about the NFL Draft–that magical day when sports franchises from around the country vie for the hottest college players in an intense, all-day affair that combines the showmanship of a Vegas show (complete with costumed players walking onto a brightly lit stage) and the number-crunching intensity of a last minute tax audit. Thankfully, the new Ivan Reitman movie “Draft Day,” starring Kevin Costner as a high strung general manager of the Cleveland Browns, repositions this mixture of pageantry politicking as a thrilling analytic free-for-all; it’s “Moneyball” as directed like an episode of “24.”
The movie opens on Draft Day, with the giant NFL flags being unfurled outside of Radio City Music Hall where the announcements are made, with a whole lot of pomp and circumstance and very old men rocking very questionable hairstyles. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., whose father, a lauded Browns coach, died a couple of weeks before. The team is currently on the bad end of a long losing streak and is desperate to land the number one draft pick. Everyone is breathing down Weaver’s neck: the team’s owner (Frank Langella), a local theme park kingpin who speaks almost exclusively in waterslide metaphors (“Defense doesn’t make a splash … People want to get wet”); the hot-tempered coach (Denis Leary); and Weaver’s girlfriend (Jennifer Garner), the team’s chief legal advisor who just informed him that—surprise!—he’s going to be a dad.
The dramatic crux of the movie is centered around which player the Browns will get (and please keep in mind, throughout this review, that it was written by someone who barely understands how football works much less the complicated, deeply mechanized specifics of how teams are assembled). The obvious choice is a decorated pretty boy quarterback named Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), but signing him would mean sidelining the team’s already stellar QB (Tom Welling). Further complicating matters is Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a lower rung draft pick who Weaver thinks could have that magic something to help reenergize the team. While the movie attempts to realistically portray the nitty gritty of what makes a good Draft Day pick, this is a movie and there is an equally sentimentalized faction where “heart” and “spirit” also go a long way in the decision-making process.
Clearly the NFL, ESPN, and every other association affiliated with the draft got behind this movie because it is emblazoned with every logo and team imaginable. Sometimes it looks less like a movie and more like a NASCAR driver’s jumpsuit. But what’s kind of remarkable is how little of it is actually set at the draft. Most of the movie takes place in the headquarters of various teams (mostly the Browns), with white men in suits running around lushly carpeted hallways and making frantic cell phone calls. Of course, various aspect of Weaver’s life intersect on this hectic day—the pregnancy issue comes up frequently but so does the death of his father. At one point his mother (played, somewhat bafflingly, by Ellen Burstyn with tu-tone hair) shows up to demand that they scatter his father’s ashes on the field that was named after him. Today of all days!
Yet, despite the piling on of sometimes plausibility-straining obstacles and issues (that sometimes go beyond the realm of melodramatic into the dangerous fields of histrionics), the movie fundamentally works. There’s something to be said about a movie that can wring genuine suspense out of a bunch of guys watching old football footage on a computer screen. Part of this has to do with the supporting cast that Reitman has assembled, with a number of big names with equally big personalities popping up, sometimes for just a scene or two, to enliven what could have been a succession of utterly boring sequences involving the equivalent of really complicated office paperwork (Sean Combs plays an agent, Sam Elliott is a college football coach, Rosanna Arquette is Costner’s ex-wife, etc.).
The other thing that makes “Draft Day” so much fun to watch is its editorial style. Instead of having people just talk on the phone (and cross-cutting between those two phone conversations), Reitman implements a series of technically impressive split-screens. These aren’t just “down the middle” split screens, but closer to the kind of outlandish big budget experimentalism of “Speed Racer” and Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” with Costner walking “in between” the different frames (occasionally he’ll be on the phone and make a U-shaped walking pattern where he’ll cross in between the split screens, arriving in a third screen representing the other side of whatever room he’s talking in). It’s a very welcome surprise to see Reitman trying out things like this and embracing digital technology in interesting ways (there’s also a clock that is ominously counting down, and one point where the frame breaks up into four squares like “Timecode”), and these super weird flourishes do much to keep the movie lively and engaging, even if it is probably 15 minutes too long.
But the number one pick in “Draft Day” is obviously Costner. He has never been the world’s greatest actor, occasionally struggling with accents and taking on roles that he probably should have left for other, more nuanced performers. But here, he fully embraces the limitations of his craft and, much like this year’s enjoyably trashy Euro-thriller “3 Days to Kill,” seems to have mellowed and ripened in his old age. This is a role that doesn’t feel like a put on; it’s like he’s been living in it for decades. He’s able to intensify the things that made him such a tremendous force to begin with—that offhanded gruffness, wry delivery, and his everyday handsomeness—and does so with more spirit and heart than you were probably expecting. “Draft Day” isn’t a movie that is going to change lives or shift paradigms, but it is entertaining, and assembled with care and attention to detail. Like any great football team, it all depends on who is on the team. Thankfully, with Reitman, Costner, and a whole bunch of talented collaborators, “Draft Day” plays like a champ. [B]