Starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Patrick St. Esprit, Frank Langella
It’s 12 hours to the beginning of the Draft for the NFL and the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) has to deal with the Owner’s wishes, the Coaches plans, the fans demands, and his family’s legacy. A delicate balance of running a business that should make money, and consider the feelings of the players, coupled with his own emotional connection to the team it is one stressful 12 hours.
Sonny gets a phone call from another NFL club offering him first dibs on the hottest prospect, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) but at the cost of 1st round picks for 3 years. Sonny is threatened to be fired by the owner of the Browns if he doesn’t take it the deal. On the other hand, the Coach is happy with a lesser pick. Much like a game of poker, the game of back-room dealing to get the players he wants leads to a crescendo in the final minutes of the live Draft broadcast.
It is only fair to start this review by clearing some misconceptions about the nature of the film Draft Day. It is not Moneyball with Football. There is no fast-talking Sorkin dialogue explaining the statistics of a new way of running an age-old sport, this is a story about the political game run from the General Manager offices, and the multitude of voices inflicting their opinions on one person who ultimately will make or break a sport club with one single choice. It is a film about keeping your head during multi-million dollar decisions.
In fact, the best film to compare Draft Day might just be David Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, where the fictional Pelican Brief that Julia Robert’s character writes as a What if scenario might not necessarily be close to the truth but if it was true could be damaging and that is enough for all parties involved. Here too, the art of the bluff is played between General Managers all across the board, revealing just enough information about players, or knowing that one team does not have the means to barter as well as another and so on. Almost like a murder mystery, we are given the metaphorical murder to solve (the proposition of the trade between NFL clubs), and Costner, like Columbo, knows what the outcome will be, but has to work out the whys and wherefores before he can reveal all at the Draft.
The real joy of the film is how well it keeps the decisions rooted in humanity. By showing us how one decision could affect the livelihood of a player, or completely cause other players to lose their motivation. In a situation that is sold as being just about the dollar figures we learn how much a trade can make a player feel unwanted, and in effect, unloved- and subsequently give them reason to feel that the club they consider as their family, that they hustle on the field to win games for, might not reciprocate with appreciation. Special mention goes to Tom Welling, of TVs Smallville in a small but poignant part as he confronts Costner’s character about whether his opinion matters. Just moving.
Costner handles most of the heavy lifting here and he never falters. The weight of all these disparate voices vying for a chance to appeal their story to him as to why one choice is better than another is written in his face, and how he carries himself. For 12 hours he needs to weigh every decision, every counter-offer, with an subjective eye, all while trying to find a few quiet minutes to listen to his gut. Gut- You know, that part of you that just “knows” while your brain continues to question. We feel for him and the heaviness that a job of this pay-grade insists on.
Of course! There are many conversation that happen here where football stats and sports jargon is thrown around and to most it will sound like another language, but it is of no real consequence to the story itself, if the layman- like this reviewer- can’t follow. Much like watching or reading hard-edge science fiction that drop ten-dollar words around like confetti, here it is quick to understand the underlying gist of the sport diatribes in most cases. The film is not about the stats, it is about how one man gracefully wades through the torrential flood of wants and needs of million dollar sports camps. But, even then what the true story is is no more than watching a very smart man work through a moment of self-doubt and how he climbs out of the hole and find himself, again.
Director, Reitman does his best to keep a film that ultimately is half full with phone conversations chugging along, with interesting uses of split screens that would make Brian DePalma blush. They may take some time to get used to, but actually are a lot of fun and open up the film in an interesting way. Draft Day reminds us just how wonderful of a director Reitman can be, his ability to balance humour and drama is his greatest asset, and hopefully this film will shut up anyone who has been doubting whether he has lost his touch.
Perhaps the weakest part of the story is the relationship between Sonny and Ali (Jennifer Garner), not because the age difference is about 30 years, but because it is never fully fleshed out, and feels as if it was thrown in to give Sonny another “thing” to work out. Costner and Garner are wonderful together and their scenes are indeed fun, but would have worked better in a traditional romantic comedy. In a film that, at its heart, is a moving drama of politics and strategies, the interactions between the secret lovers felt like we were cutting to another film that was directed as if it were a farce, complete with hiding in closets.
The beauty of this film is you can never be too sure how Sammy is going to pull all the pieces together, and much like a good caper film that is the real joy to witness. No one should be worried that the amount of sports talk might become tiresome, as it is not in there enough to get in the way of the real dilemmas. A grand story that is one part mystery, one part Con film, and one part political-like thriller, all held together with the strength and charm that only Kevin Costner can bring.