Sports movies have been good to Kevin Costner. American Flyers not so much, perhaps. And For the Love of the Game not so much either (but didn’t Raimi get behind that baseball?) But Bull Durham, through Field of Dreams and onto Tin Cup, they’ve proved more consistent than his attempts at costly star vehicles, which often floundered almost as soon as he had the idea he set sail in them. On that level, it may be surprising that it’s taken him so long to come back around to them, although a good chunk of that will be down to his resurgent cachet. This year he’s a coach in McFarland USA, last year he was an NFL manager in Draft Day. And you know what? It’s a pretty good movie, and Costner’s pretty good in it.
It’s also the best thing Ivan Reitman’s done in more than a decade, although he’s done very little in more than a decade (that may sound like faint praise, but he provides a sure hand, and makes fine and complementary use of split screen throughout). I know diddly about American Football, but knowing nothing about baseball, other than that it’s a glorified version of rounders, did nothing to dent my enjoyment of Moneyball (in another of Costner’s 2014 pictures, 3 Days to Kill, he makes a point of telling a Frenchie that he comes from Pittsburg, where “We play real football”. I don’t know if there’s a reference in Black or White). This isn’t quite up there with the Brad Pitt movie, and it’s much more classically oiled fare, but Draft Day shares something of that picture’s design, in as much as the focus is not on the field, or the players, but on the behind the scenes mechanics that puts a team together and makes a side tick.
Costner is Sonny Weaver Jr, general manager of the Cleveland Browns, faced with an escalating series of difficult choices on the titular day, that of the NFL draft, in which newly eligible players are selected to the league. He finds himself embroiled in a series of battles, bluffs and seat-of-the-pants deals. Much of what ensues (trading first picks for future years’ picks with rival teams) is initially confusing, but its one of those movies with such surefooted momentum that, if one goes with the flow, one ought to get the gist of it in due course.
Weaver is initially under pressure from boss Frank Langella. As a result, he makes a decision regarding his potential first pick player that leads him to spend most of the rest of the running time looking for ways out of (scrutinising the history of this potential star for signs of weakness). If he isn’t incurring the wrath of his boss, he’s pissing of his head coach (Dennis Leary), players he might pass over for the pot of gold (Chadwick Boseman in a surprisingly minor role, but exuding charisma, which may be why he took the part), having spats with his mum and sister (Ellen Burstyn and Rosanna Arquette), or heavy conversations with his pregnant girlfriend (Jennifer Garner, a mere 18 years Kev’s junior).
The business with an intrusive mother may seem a bit artificial, but at least it’s germane to the trial by fire in which Weaver finds himself; he fired his father, the former coach, a year previously, and père died a week before the day’s events. What dad would have wanted runs throughout the picture, but this isn’t all about a Field of Dreams; the forces competing for his attention compel Weaver to be his own man.
The real weak spot here is the girlfriend character, shoehorned in to provide an extra bit of drama but having the opposite effect, making what could have been lean and to the point a little more bloated and much more process-driven.
Draft Day reminded me a little of Ron Howard’s The Paper in its faux-adrenalised, against-the-clock construction, but it’s more focused than that feature even if its less broadly accessible. Apparently, the likelihood of Sonny’s decisions actually occurring is extremely remote, but plausibility doesn’t necessarily make a good movie. The build up to his make or break moment is Costner at his best, a reminder of why he became a leading man in the first place, that air of effortless earnestness, with a hint of exasperation.
If this is Kev’s show, his support is universally strong. Langella is always a treat and gets some of the best lines (“No, I’m going to see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Of course I’m going to the draft”), and Reitman has populated the cast with a great eye for who will spark off Costner in whatever the next scene is. Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph’s script has a satisfying construction, such that Weaver’s wrong-footed start to the day comes full circle, but with the shoe on the other foot (“You pancake eating motherfucker”, indeed). So much so that Weaver doesn’t need to go overboard and tell us he loves his job. Such moments of overstatement can’t spoil Draft Day, though. I didn’t think I’d have cause to say this again (and rarely have previously), but well done, Ivan.