With Kevin Costner, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph. Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language and sexual references. 109 minutes.
You don’t have to like sports to enjoy sports movies and you don’t have to know the first thing about football to enjoy DRAFT DAY. What little you do need to know on the subject the film fills in. This is a movie that, like “Rush” (about auto racing) and “Moneyball” (about baseball), is a powerful drama that transcends its source material. None of that is to say that football fans won’t find this especially fascinating.
Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, general manager of the Cleveland Browns. Apparently the Browns are a team that hungers for a Super Bowl victory the way the Red Sox used to crave the World Series. It’s the day of the NFL draft where teams get to select new players from a pool of college athletes. Sonny, who has the top first round pick, is under a lot of pressure over what he should do with it. To give you an idea: the head coach (Denis Leary) wants a player who will fit in with the strategy he’s been building for the team while the owner (Frank Langella) wants a star who will fill the stadium. Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants Sonny to drop everything and come to a memorial service for his father–the former manager whom Sonny fired.
There are players (Chadwick Boseman among them) who see their future with the Browns. There are rival managers willing to trade draft options with Sonny to get what they want (without letting on what it is they really want). And there’s Ali (Jennifer Garner), who’s part of the Browns organization and lives and breathes football… and who has been having a private relationship with Sonny that’s about to get more complicated.
So it’s all on Sonny and Costner gives his best performance in years as a decent man trying to steer a steady course through all these conflicts knowing it may cost him his reputation and his job if he’s wrong. As with “Moneyball,” this is all insider stuff. It’s not about winning the big game. It’s about putting together the team that might be able to win the big game. Sonny has to figure out when to bluff and when to give in, making choices that enrage the people around him. It’s not clear if he feels he doesn’t have time to explain or keeping them in the dark is part of his strategy, but this is a movie that will be appreciated by poker players as much as by football fans.
Costner is surrounded by a strong supporting cast with some, like Chi McBride, Sam Elliott, and Sean Combs, popping up for just a scene or two. Leary and Langella are fire and ice in their confrontations with Costner, with Leary literally setting fire to Sonny’s office at one point, while Langella is coldly calculating as the team’s owner. Garner provides the film’s heart, allowing Costner to demonstrate there’s a thinking, feeling person in the midst of this chaos.
What’s incredible is that the film’s director is Ivan Reitman, whose most notable work in the last decade or so–besides having the talented filmmaker Jason Reitman for a son–was the amiable romantic comedy “No Strings Attached.” After forgettable (and forgotten) movies like “Evolution” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” to see his name on this is a surprise. Reitman has come roaring back with a film that is as different from his past hits–including “Ghostbusters” and “Twins”–as could be. “Draft Day” is a film about people working at cross-purposes and how the man in charge doesn’t waver from doing what he thinks is right even when he’s not 100% sure himself.
Yeah, it’s about football, too, but that’s the least of it.••• Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.