I heard other people pitching Draft Day as the NFL version of Moneyball. Certainly this movie is going for the same thing as Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated baseball film, to squeeze gripping drama out of the world of sports without a single scene taking place on the field. This football comedy is at a disadvantage, having neither Moneyball’s intellectual cred nor its star power. You know what, though? This movie is still better than Moneyball. Tell your friends.
The story follows embattled Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) in an action-packed 13 hours leading up to the NFL draft. At the start of the day, he owns the seventh pick overall, but an early-morning trade offer places him in a dilemma. Does he select the loudmouthed but good-hearted, game-breaking linebacker (42’s Chadwick Boseman)? Does he address his team’s offensive woes and draft the soft-spoken running back (played by real-life NFL player Arian Foster) whose stock has slipped because of an assault charge? Or does he trade the team’s future for the No. 1 pick and take the can’t-miss Heisman-winning QB (Josh Pence), whom Sonny suspects might just miss? Everyone around Sonny tries to sway him, including his restless owner (Frank Langella), his conniving new head coach (Denis Leary), his injury-hit veteran quarterback (Tom Welling), and his own mother (Ellen Burstyn).
The movie is officially sanctioned by the NFL and makes extensive use of logos, stadiums, and footage of historic games, as well as featuring a bevy of cameos by broadcasters and former players. This is more essential than you might think if you’re not a sports fan. As the movie pings between front offices in Houston, Jacksonville, Buffalo, and Kansas City, the NFL trappings lend the proceedings weight and authenticity, even if they also lead to the unfortunate casting of the Seattle Seahawks as perennial losers and the Dallas Cowboys as perennial winners in this football reality.
More importantly, they provide a nice backdrop for a sprawling cast of sharply written characters. The actors, both famous and unknown, do even the tiny roles proud: Brad Henke as a Browns’ strength coach, giving Sonny some key information about his players; W. Earl Brown as a background investigator, raising worrying signs about the presumptive top pick; Terry Crews as the running back’s dad and Browns legend, doing his best to give his son guidance; Sam Elliott as the University of Wisconsin head coach, snapping at Sonny after he questions the quarterback’s character. The script is by first-time screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph (the latter an acclaimed playwright), and they cover an astonishing amount of ground in 110 minutes. If that’s not enough, moviegoers here in North Texas will savor the exchange between Sonny and his coach about the different social scenes in Cleveland and Dallas.
Not all of it works, it must be said. The scenes detailing Sonny’s issues with his recently deceased dad who was a beloved Browns head coach are noticeably weaker than the rest of the film. The same goes for the covert romance between Sonny and his salary cap expert (Jennifer Garner), despite Garner’s hard-headed work as a woman who survives in the football business by taking crap from no one. There’s also a couple of scenes that have obviously been shoehorned in for the benefit of moviegoers who don’t know football.
The movie’s strength is the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants way it depicts the backroom dealings that make or break a sports team. Director Ivan Reitman (who hasn’t been a relevant Hollywood filmmaker in 20 years) does neat little tricks with split-screens during Sonny’s phone conversations with rival GMs. Otherwise he goes by the playbook and wrangles a potentially baggy film into something tight, muscular, and funny. Meanwhile, Costner misses the desperation of a man who knows that his dream job is on the line, but his underlying coolness meshes well with a character who’s able to keep his head amid such pressure. And the film climaxes with a dazzling sequence at the draft itself, when Sonny frantically maneuvers to extricate himself from a losing situation and come out with enough to help his team.
The human-scaled ingenuity is little short of exhilarating, and it highlights something rare about this movie. The intelligence and scale of this throwback film have lamentably gone out of style in blockbuster-chasing Hollywood, but that only serves to make Draft Day into a late-round gem that other people will overlook. Don’t make that mistake.
Starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman. Rated PG-13.