The NFL draft has never interested me in the least. Probably stemming from the fact that I’ve never gone out of my way to watch football on any level (and only like watching the Super Bowl for the commercials), I never understood how spending hours with a group of commentators pontificating over analysis and theories was worth my time. But the draft is a big deal to a lot of people, whether they be spectators who’ve invested a lot of passion into their favorite teams and players, or the coaches, managers and owners of the teams themselves, whose careers depend on making the right moves on a day that defines their team’s future. It’s in this where the real drama lies, and director Ivan Reitman explores Draft Day with an entertaining look behind the curtain of how crafting the next great football team can be an exhausting, stressful and incredibly intriguing game all its own.
Taking place over the twelve hour period before the draft begins, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, has some big choices to make, both personally and professionally. Not only must he contend with the usual media scrutiny, the response of fans, and an owner (Frank Langella) who’s looking for Sonny to make a big splash to help the team rise out of the cellar, but Sonny’s father, a former Browns head coach and inspiration to a lot of players (and fans), passed away a week prior to the draft and he’s just found out his girlfriend, Browns salary cap adjuster Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant… and he doesn’t respond favorably.
All together, nothing is going according to plan on a day that every move he makes may very well define the rest of his life. With so much on the table, Sonny’s first big move is trading three number one draft picks for the chance to acquire the number one pick, quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). This single decision is what drives the narrative of the story and sets a solid foundation for the conflicts that build between Sonny and almost every other character on screen.
Denis Leary adds some spice to the proceedings as Coach Penn, a former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys who feels every decision should be run by him if Sonny is going to have a chance at creating the most effective team. His top pick is Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), a running back whose father (Terry Crews) was a former Brown’s player, and he balks at the idea of wasting their first pick on Sonny’s top choice, defensive lineman Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), or even Bo for that matter, simply because he has faith in their current quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), after the team discovers he’s made a full recovery from an earlier injury.
It seems like a lot to handle for even the most seasoned of directors, but Reitman balances it all with grace and professionalism. Reitman’s been directing for a long time now, so it’s no wonder he’s become a master at mixing a lot of different and varying ingredients to create such a delectable stew. Nothing in the film feels superfluous for the sake of drama; every conflict and decision relies on all of the others to function correctly, and nothing feels forced or unnecessary.
Better yet, for a sports movie without any actual sports, Reitman’s pacing is impeccable. One of the tricks to this is how he edits the numerous telephone conversations between the varying amounts of general managers, coaches and players. The style is unique and interesting, producing a sense of urgency and intensity that would usually have been provided by a steady amount of football sequences. After a while, the tricks do get a little tiresome, but it’s a minor squabble over a lively, energetic game of cat-and-mouse that on its face could have been a labored set of conversations.
What helps even more is the casting of Costner as Sonny. A consummate professional, Costner never puts himself above any of his supporting cast; each actor creates a character that fits their style, and Costner finds a way to hold them up and support them all on the same level, no matter how small the role. He takes what he’s given and tweaks his performance to match, which plays right into his portrayal of a typical general manager — a leader who knows how to effectively deal with different personalities on a daily basis and make them work to accomplish the same, ultimate goal. He knows he’s in charge and only his decisions matter, but everyone around him is important to that decision and he doesn’t take anyone for granted.
Over the course of the film, Costner displays a magnificent array of different levels of anxiety, exasperation, anger, and impatience, all the while staying as cool as a cucumber in all of his communications with both competing teams and his own. When he finally does erupt, the scene is effective because his loss of control signals the apex of his inner conflict. Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants to spread the ashes of his late father on the practice field, not because she can’t do it on any other day, but because she knows that the best remedy to the chaos of his decisions is to get away from it all and reflect — on the past, the present and the future of who he is and what he wants to be. He just can’t understand that given the pressure he’s currently under.
Which is what the film is really all about. Underneath all of the anxiety and the games and the manipulation, the film is a study in figuring out what’s most important to you as an individual and how to keep that without second-guessing yourself. Do you hold onto your integrity under the constant fear of losing what you think makes you who you are, or do you give in to the pressures of outside influence against your own better judgement?
At the very beginning of the movie, Sonny writes something down on a piece of paper and puts it in his pocket. Of course, we don’t find out what’s written on it until near the end, but because we’re left wondering what it is throughout the film, when we do find out what it says, it’s a testimony to his need to remain honest and truthful to himself, and a guide to keep from straying from what he knows is best for him and the team. And as the clock begins to tick on the consequences of his decisions, Sonny works his magic as only he can to make the best of a bad situation.
Reitman tackles the subject of the draft with all of the right moves, crafting a compelling, lightweight drama with the hand of a master filmmaker. He not only stays true to who he is and what he believes will work, but knows when to let the film breathe and when to bare down and put all of the chips on the table.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Heaven is for Real, Transcendence and A Haunted House 2. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.