Draft Day may be a sports movie, but football isn’t the sport. Games are played, but they’re not on a field. This is a chess match, a poker game and a battle of wills, and in the place of a team full of plucky underdogs trying to come up with an unlikely win in the zero hour, there’s a downtrodden NFL general manager trying to make a series of business deals to save his job and his team’s revenue stream.
If Field of Dreams was cinema’s most heartfelt tribute to the absolute romantic purity of a sport, then Draft Day is its more coldly practical descendant: Heart and starry-eyed idealism is great and all, but we still need to come in below the salary cap.
At the center of both movies is Kevin Costner, now appearing in his fourth feature about the sporting life, though now well past the point where he can be on any kind of field himself. Here he plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of a Cleveland Browns team that is years away from its last winning season. Draft day is the day to try to turn that around, and Sonny is having a rough go of it, between a calculating team owner (Frank Langella) ready to show him the door if he doesn’t make a “splash” with his picks, and a hot-headed coach (Denis Leary) with a penchant for destructive acts of defiance when he doesn’t get his way.
He also faces a thinly drawn trio of possible draft picks to deal with, a mother (Ellen Burstyn) who inexplicably wants to interrupt her son’s most stressful day of the year to spread Dad’s ashes at the 50-yard line (Dad was also the team’s coach), and the small matter of Ali (Jennifer Garner), a team executive he’s been seeing secretly, who picked today to tell him she’s pregnant. Sonny needs a drink and a hug.
All of the personal conflict is meant to add some stakes in for anyone who doesn’t find the NFL draft itself to be drama enough. Ironically, though, the only part of Draft Day that actually has any effective tension is the draft — which only takes up the last 15 minutes or so of the film.
It’s difficult to blame director Ivan Reitman completely for how dull Draft Day feels for most of its running time, even if its narcotic blandness is typical of much of his recent output. But when the script calls for huge chunks of dialogue to occur on the telephone — one of the most uninteresting means of communication to put onscreen — it’s going to be a challenge for any director.
But Reitman’s solution — shifting split screens that allow a character to cross over into the other character’s frame — just draws attention to how awkward it is to jam this many phone calls into a movie. Meanwhile, his device for introducing new cities before each call, which simply combines aerial shots of stadiums with names of cities and teams, comes off like a series of those NFL promotional bumpers that air during games.
All of those calls, all of those draft-day trades, and all of the chaos surrounding Sonny also translate into a lot of characters. Too many, it turns out, to give much dimension to. Stuck with those limitations, the film falls back on the laziest one-joke stereotypes: the crusty coach, the flashy agent, the nerdy intern and the showboat draft prospect with a heart of gold — the latter borrowed liberally from Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire.
Draft Day is never terrible — one suspects the NFL wouldn’t have been so generous in licensing official league images if they hadn’t ensured there would be a baseline of crowd-friendly professionalism. And the movie is loaded with all the star cast members and glossy sheen that money can buy. That’s almost enough to hide just how aggressively mediocre it is underneath. In fact, the movie acts as an illustration of one of Sonny’s greatest fears in the film: Those first-round picks cost a lot of money and look great on paper, but that’s still no guarantee they’ll carry your team once the clock starts.