Film Review: Draft Day

Pro football manager faces crises on the most important day of his career in a well-tooled vehicle for Kevin Costner.

Bright, splashy, and mostly fun, Draft Day is a broadly appealing sports film whose old-fashioned plot is dressed up with fancy new tricks. There's enough behind-the-scenes intrigue to draw football fans, but Kevin Costner is the real story here. Given his best screen opportunity in years, he turns in the kind of performance that made him a star decades ago.

Writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman set their story in the final hours leading up to the NFL's annual draft of college players, a ritualized celebration that means big money for the league and for ESPN (both eager participants in the movie).

The Seattle Seahawks trade their first pick, presumably golden-boy quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), to Cleveland Browns manager Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Costner), a newcomer battling domineering owner Anthony Molina (a sly Frank Langella), overbearing coach Penn (Denis Leary), a recalcitrant staff of "expert" scouts, and his dead father's heritage with the team. What's more, the divorced Sonny has just learned that his girlfriend, Browns executive Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant.

Sonny had his draft hopes pinned on defensive back Vontae Mack (an engaging Chadwick Boseman), while Penn is pushing for running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), son of a longtime Browns hero. Molina wants to make a splash with Callahan. ("People pay to get wet," he tells Sonny at an amusement park.) The day's negotiations will draw in a half-dozen other teams as Sonny and his staff do background checks, review game tapes, and argue strategy at meetings, in offices, and especially over phones.

Draft Day
is almost all talk, with a few distractions, like expertly timed comedy from a young intern (Griffin Newman). To help bridge conversations that span several time zones, director Ivan Reitman employs an editing scheme that erases boundaries between scenes and locations. Combining split-screens, wipes and dissolves, Reitman can have Sonny, on a phone in his Cleveland office, step in front of a coach in Wisconsin. At first the effect feels like digital gimmickry, but in the hands of editors Sheldon Kahn and Dana E. Glauberman the multiple screens enhance the movie, adding layers to scenes while speeding up transitions.

Reitman, whose last film as a director was the so-so No Strings Attached, brings his customary commercial polish to Draft Day, as well as profligate access to institutions, facilities and celebrities. All the hoopla helps disguise the fact that this is a very old-fashioned story.

Draft Day is a sports film without any sports, a pretend Moneyball without any real stats. The movie is really about family—Sonny's dysfunctional business family, his dysfunctional physical family, and the family he may be planning with Ali. And Reitman is superb at detailing just how cleverly these characters get on one another's nerves.

Costner's best roles have always had a streak of megalomania in them, and Sonny Weaver is no exception. Draft Day ultimately boils down to whether Sonny can get his way despite the football experts, his revered father, demanding mother, and all the other distractions around him. Costner's great charm as an actor has been his ability to turn self-absorption into a virtue. In Draft Day he delivers another against-all-odds justification of getting his own way.

Watching the machinery click together so effortlessly is part of the fun behind Draft Day, which is sadly silent about such up-to-the-minute topics as concussions, crimes by athletes, and how money corrupts college sports. (And despite strenuous efforts, it's hopelessly square about social media.) But the real thrill in the movie is watching Costner steamroll his way over just about everyone else in the picture.

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