If Ivan Reitman's first film since NO STRINGS ATTACHED three years ago and his first truly enjoyable film in about 20 years was just about the general manager of an NFL football team (in this case, the Cleveland Browns for no particular reason) wheeling and dealing in the hours leading up to the draft, I would have thought it an interesting choice. But when you cast Kevin Costner, arguably the king of sports films that actually have heart (BULL DURHAM, FIELD OF DREAMS, TIN CUP), as general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., it means something and adds something to the overall significance of what's going in this behind-the-scenes look inside and outside the organization.
Costner doesn't play this role as a slick insider who manipulates to get what he wants, despite what the team's coach (Denis Leary), owner (Frank Langella) or money manager (Jennifer Garner) say. That's exactly what he is, but he doesn't play it that way. Instead, Sonny is a man trying to live in the shadow of his late father, a hero to the organization; deal with a pestering mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (a marginalized Rosanna Arquette); and process the news that his girlfriend Ali (that would also be Garner) just found out she's pregnant.
I don't know enough about football to judge whether the unreal amount of double crossing and deception that is on display in DRAFT DAY is authentic or believable, but I had no trouble buying that the people who run sports teams and the agents who handle athletes are about as conniving as they come, so the end result is most of what we see does feel real. In the span of just a few hours, Sonny goes from being the underdog (his team is desperate at best) to having the upper hand on everyone, and once everything falls into place, you begin to see that the way it goes down is the only way it could have for all of the interested parties to get what they wanted.
Yes, the film wraps up things a little too nice and neat, and there is some fat on the plot that could easily have been trimmed, but what I found gripping was the way hundreds of college players place their hopes and dreams on one day and how getting selected in the first round makes such a drastic differences over getting picked in the third round or even second. There are some nice supporting players on hand here, including Terry Crews in a rare dramatic role as a former player and father to a son (Arian Foster) with a promising future in the NFL. 42's Chadwick Boseman plays another potential draftee who has perhaps unwisely linked his entire future to playing with the Browns. And Josh Pence plays a likely Number 1 draft pick, who Sonny doesn't trust as a solid, likable professional player; Sean Combs plays his agent with a great deal of insider flash and knowledge.
Knowing that the NFL clearly signed off on DRAFT DAY means that some of the truly sleazy deals that probably go on are left out of this story, but this isn't really that kind of film anyway. Sonny is attempting to save his professional and personal lives from tanking at the same time—apparently no one is interested in giving him a day to get his job done before bombarding him with non-draft issues, which makes for a some genuinely obnoxious exchanges. The more interesting confrontations are between Sonny and Leary's Coach Penn, who Sonny sees as more of a babysitter than an actual leader. Both men seem eager to prove his theory wrong. Leary uses his comedy chops to let loose with a few choice zingers at Sonny, and he gives up very little ground in the process, even when his draft analysis is tossed aside for Sonny's gut instincts on a few choices.
When DRAFT DAY stays on coarse, it's an impressive piece of drama from writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, who understand that all Sonny needs to get through the day is to keep his head undistracted from bullshit, which is the exact opposite of what he gets on this fateful day. And Costner does something he hasn't really done in a while: he stay strong as the center, while a world of chaos and far more colorful characters circle around him, each waiting for a moment to swoop and peck away at moments of time. It may not sound like a tough acting job, but Costner knows that being the stable force in a film like this makes moments when he starts to lose his grip more meaningful and dramatic.
Reitman uses a strange editing trick to get from scene to scene (usually when two people are talking in different states) that involves characters appearing to walk in and out of each other's scenes. At first, it seems kind of unique and interesting, but after a while, the gimmick wears thin and seems unnecessary to use throughout the entire movie. It's a minor quibble, but aesthetically, it becomes tiring after about 45 minutes. I think DRAFT DAY might actually have some appeal to people with little working knowledge of the draft process. If you make a film that requires such knowledge, you're essentially excluding a huge number of potential audience members. But this isn't that movie. If you stay alert and pay attention, you'll get what's happening and why.
As I said, movies like DRAFT DAY live or die based on how authentic they feel, and this captures this experience. The film captures the ruthlessness, tension and dream fulfillment that such a day contains, with Kevin Costner at the center of the universe watching the planets spin around him. It's good to see him back on what I consider his home turf. He looks right at home, despite all of the yelling and anxiety bombarding him. It's a different take on the sports drama, and for that alone, I appreciated what Reitman and his team has accomplished.