Kevin Costner’s 2014 movie trifecta continues with “Draft Day”, a football film about the back room wranglings leading up to and during the NFL draft. This certainly isn’t the first sports movie focused on the front office instead of on the field. Think “Moneyball” with helmets and shoulder pads. The two films actually have a lot in common. Both feature two strong central lead performances and both give cool cinematic insights into a little known side of their sports.
Interestingly its similarities to “Moneyball” could be perceived as a bigger weakness. Both movies revolve around an audacious and headstrong team leader who bucks the system and conventional sports wisdom to build “his team”. They face constant resistance from ownership, scouts, and everyone in between yet stake their job on their faith in their system. It’s impossible not to see the resemblance.
But despite the similarities “Draft Day” still manages to feel like its own movie. In reality football has become America’s #1 sport so much so that even the NFL Draft has become must watch television for fans. That hectic and intense timeframe is the setting for director Ivan Reitman’s movie. Costner plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., the general manager for a Cleveland Browns team mired in an extensive losing stretch. With only hours remaining until the start of the draft Sonny is facing immense pressure from the owner (Frank Langella) to make a big splash. He’s also butting heads with a newly hired coach (Denis Leary) and a fan-base desperate to win.
Sonny’s personal life is equally stressful. His secretive romantic relationship with a front office coworker named Ali (Jennifer Garner) has taken an unforeseen turn. He wrestles with the shadow of his recently deceased father – a well-respected former coach for the Browns. He also struggles under the weight of everyone’s expectations in light of his own inadequacies. The movie never dives deep into any of these personal issues, but we get just enough of them to flesh out Sonny and make him more than a stereotypical sports character.
The meat and potatoes of the movie is football but you don’t have to be well versed in the sport to understand what’s going on. That said, understanding the landscape and the relationship between college football and the NFL gave me a deeper appreciation for the story. I loved the manipulative and sometimes vulturous back-and-forths between GMs, each hungry to get the best deal. Then there is the turbulent draft preparation which is itself fascinating even without this stories added drama. All of this clicks and even when you know the movie is stretching it is still a ton of fun.
But the biggest strength of the film is Kevin Costner. Talk about a strong performance. Costner reminds us why he became such a huge star. It’s a completely seamless and effortless performance that reveals so many of the characteristics and contradictions of this character. I also really love Jennifer Garner here. In the past she has been an actress I have never given much attention. Here she is razor sharp and she is a welcomed strong and confident female character. Even Denis Leary, an actor I normally dislike, is really good and I never get tired of watching Frank Langella. And then of course there is the assortment of mandatory football related cameos sprinkled throughout the film. Some are really cool while others are really obvious.
“Draft Day” could be accused of being too safe and by-the-book. It also follows several familiar sports movie tropes that you will immediately recognize. But the movie never chokes itself on them and it remains compelling throughout. The story is crisp and exciting even in its unique setting and overall it is loads of fun. But Costner is the shining light and watching him work here makes me so happy that he is back on the big screen. Simply put it’s one of my favorite performances of the year so far and it made “Draft Day” all the more interesting.