Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day is like the Super Bowl: officially sanctioned by the National Football League, it’s only occasionally entertaining, unnecessarily long, artificially dramatic, more of a celebration of sports commercialization than of football, and—most importantly for both the movie and the game—marketed to appeal to men and women, football purists and novices alike. Unfortunately this marketing strategy rarely works (ever seen a non-football fan become one because of the Super Bowl?), and Draft Day fumbles as it tries to be everything to everyone, a veritable cinematic buffet of genres. It’s a romantic comedy, a father-son saga, an examination of a mid-life crisis, a social commentary, a commercial for the NFL, and, somewhere in between, a “sports movie” in only the loosest sense.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Producers: Ali Bell, Joe Medjuck, Gigi Pritzker, Ivan Reitman
Writers: Scott Rothman, Rajiv Joseph
Cinematographer: Eric Steelberg
Music: John Debney
Editors: Dana E. Glauberman, Sheldon Kahn
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Arian Foster, Denis Leary, Patrick St. Esprit, Chi McBride, Terry Crews
Genre: Drama, Sports
US Theatrical Release: April 11, 2014
US Distributor: Summit Entertainment
There’s no actual game action in Draft Day, and to be fully appreciated it requires an intimate level of knowledge not just about American football, but about the inner workings of the National Football League, the dynamics of its team’s management structures, and the popularity of its annual draft. (I can’t imagine the film will do well in other international markets, but if so the league should confidently march ahead with its global expansion plans.) Moneyball succeeded because it featured a narrative with fully fleshed-out characters and it precisely avoided the high-minded math of its source material. Oliver Stone’s bombastic Any Given Sunday showcased personality clashes and backstabbing that happened to be set in professional football, but might as well have been a Bravo reality show.
Draft Day, meanwhile, is like Glengarry Glen Ross or Margin Call set in an NFL front office: egocentric middle-aged men shouting at each other about things that sure seem important but that you’d have a hard time explaining to your friend after the movie. Or maybe I’m just underestimating the intelligence of football novices. Having worked very briefly in the NFL (New England Patriots, 2002) and having played in fantasy football leagues for about 20 seasons, I actually had no problem understanding what was going on in Draft Day. Rather, I struggled to understand what purpose the film serves other than a salute to the NFL’s prominence and an opportunity for Kevin Costner to branch out into a third professional sport as part of his sudden return to film, with more projects in 2014 than in the last six years combined.
Costner comfortably slips into the role of Sonny Weaver, Jr., the unpopular (is there any other kind?) general manager of the hapless Cleveland Browns. (The film was reportedly meant to be based on the Buffalo Bills, but production costs brought it to Ohio instead.) It’s the day of the NFL draft, and Sonny knows he has one season left to turn the team around before getting canned by the team’s billionaire owner, Harvey Molina (Frank Langella), a pitch-perfect caricature of the greed that permeates the league.
Allow me to interject some context here: professional football is the most popular sport in the United States and the race isn’t even close. Technically a nonprofit organization, the National Football League is actually obscenely profitable, with $11 billion in annual revenue, the highest average attendance of any sports league in the world, and television networks that fall over themselves to air games three nights a week. Although a team salary cap keeps the total league payroll lower than Major League Baseball (the only measure in which the NFL trails another sport), NFL player salaries still total in the neighborhood of $4 billion. Commissioner Roger Goodell does well enough for himself (compensated $44 million in 2012), and cities across the U.S. can’t tax their citizens fast enough for funding to build new stadiums. Construction is underway for a new stadium here in Minneapolis and from coast to coast, as evidenced by Gregg Easterbrook’s must-read Atlantic article last year.
It’s important to know this background in order to understand that what you’re watching in Draft Day is a winking joke by the NFL about its own pervasiveness in society. The Super Bowl is a national holiday, games are aired on national networks for 12 hours straight on Sundays from September through December, training camps are taken much more seriously by fans than baseball’s spring training, the draft is held at the venerable Radio City Music Hall (and broadcast on television for three days straight), and the legal gambling that is fantasy football has exploded in popularity, with the enthusiastic support of the league. Draft Day is just one more opportunity for football to take center stage, and I wouldn’t put it past Goodell—who appears as himself in the movie—to arrange the trailer to be shown on video screens at every Major League Baseball stadium this month.
I’ve taken this far away from the plot of Draft Day, but the fact is that there isn’t much of a plot to comment on. There’s not enough depth for the movie to be the character study of Sonny that it wants to be, and not enough context given in the course of 12 hours to understand the consequences of the characters’ actions. However, despite the skeleton of a plot, the screenplay successfully illustrates the pressure experienced by general managers and coaches, and the stress and desperation experienced by anxious players waiting to hear their names called. The National Football League is the most militant of professional sports leagues (you have no idea how seriously these guys take themselves), and the “war room” in which draft decisions are made must truly be the pressure-cooker we see here.
Unfortunately, Draft Day interrupts the tension and dramatic rhythm of the day with romantic interludes (Jennifer Garner as Sonny’s pregnant girlfriend/assistant), family drama (Ellen Burstyn as Sonny’s mother, haunting him with the specter of his stubborn father), and a truly bizarre editing style in which split screens and disorienting scene juxtapositions make you feel like you’re watching a live-action comic book. In the end, Draft Day can really only be recommended for those it will disappoint the least: rabid football fans who watch or even attend the NFL draft, Cleveland Browns fans, and people who can tolerate Chris Berman even in a brief cameo role (one of the biggest obstacles for me). Everyone else will either be confused or find reason to complain—just like watching the Super Bowl.