Draft Day

April 11, 2014
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Review by James Banks

  • His career has had its ups and downs (i.e. Waterworld), but since 1988, with the release of Bull Durham, Kevin Costner has been the dean of the American sports movie. Whether he is building a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield (Field of Dreams) or making the most remarkable hole-in-twelve at the US Open (Tin Cup), his laid back demeanor and air of sincerity has earned him an icon status that age has not diminished.

    It is this kind of phlegmatic sincerity which director Ivan Reitman and screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman put on trial in Draft Day—the only day on the American calendar which is probably more divisive than Election Night. Twenty years ago, when players, instead of team managers, were the protagonists of sports dramas, audiences would have made the same mistake I did at the box office and asked for a ticket to Game Day only to be reminded that this title was incorrect. Sports in general—and football in particular—have become such big business in the age of ESPN that we don’t even bother pretending that it’s just a game.

    And no one seems to be more aware of this than the football fans drifting in and out of Draft Day who keep their pitchforks, blowhorns and tar-and-feathers on standby, just in case the team management makes the wrong call on a player. And Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kostner) the team manager for the Cleveland Browns, is acutely aware that draft day is as important for determining titles as Superbowl Sunday; and, lest he forget, he keeps a framed quote of Sun Tzu on his wall: “Every battle is won before it is fought.”

    This quote does not mean that the underdogs are doomed to defeat; just that they will have to fight harder. And from the moment Weaver stumbles into the camera frame, in a telephone conversation with his archrival and counterpart of the Seattle Seahawks (Patrick St. Esprit), it is clear that he is tired but in his element. Under pressure from his boss Anthony Molina (Frank Langhella) to “make a splash”, Sonny decides that the Seahawks’ offer—their top quarterback prospect in exchange for the Browns’ number one picks for the next three years—might be a deal with the devil worth taking.

    While this might be the kind of news that makes headlines and wins fans, the deal makes the politics of the game come into full swing with everyone breaking off into factions; this includes the other prospects who wanted to be the Browns’ top picks (Chadwick Boseman and Adrian Foster); the current quarterback (Tom Welling) who wants to know why the Browns need a replacement when there is nothing wrong with his own throwing arm; and the coach (Dennis Leary) who second guesses his team manager at every turn. With Cleveland football, it is never business; it is personal.

    Director Ivan Reitman does a competent job of keeping the audience amused even while dealing with the minutiae of football management. It isn’t so important that the audience know what every character is talking about so long as they see the personalities bouncing off one another. Cinematically, Reitman does not experiment with avant garde camerawork. The only unconventional artistic element—a liberal use of wipe editing, an editing style familiar to most of us from its use for before-and-after shots on home improvement and cooking shows—seems more like a move by a pragmatic director serving the scene than an auteur showing off his tricks.

    The movie is peppered with talented actors who make their roles lively, even though none of these roles are particularly complicated. Jennifer Garner gives a confident and likeable performance as the Browns’ financial manager who is also carrying Sonny’s child. Frank Langhella might not have to work too hard behind a pair of opaque sunglasses which never come off, but he is memorable as a marginally in-souled theme-park owner who has squeaked a fortune out of selling waterslide tickets; Sam Elliott has a brief cameo which is mostly in the film to include his name in the cast. But when it comes to playing a Midwestern football coach, he is the right fit.

    But when it comes to sports movies for the ages, Draft Day doesn’t make the cut, primarily because nothing much seems to be at stake. Sonny is in a transitional moment, but, unlike the recent baseball drama Moneyball, he is not about the change the rules of the game. Cleveland may have fallen on hard times, but Reitman prefers to assume its underdog status, rather than focusing on it.

    With minor classics of the genre like Bull Durham or Friday Night Lights, we cared about the movie’s main characters because, even while they were only minor league or high school players, we could understand that the pressure to win was deeply connected to their sense of security. Draft Day tries to make us feel this way about its protagonist by including a subplot revealing that the Browns were actually a Weaver family business and the family was not always happy.

    But these are characters who work so far beneath the veneer that we see on television every day—or in our kids’ high school games every year—that it is hard to sympathize. The suspense of whether Sonny will buy a lemon and end his career is enough to keep audiences engaged for the duration of the movie, but many will probably come away as I did—wondering if, were these events to transpire in real life, they would even care.

    This does not mean that Draft Day is a bad movie. It is a serviceable sports comedy with talented actors and competent direction and writing. But, unlike Sonny Weaver, it doesn’t seem worried about making a splash. It is perfectly content just to break even.

  • Release Date
    April 11, 2014
    • Joshua Gibbs
      April 30, 2014

      What are the unique requirements of the sports movie? Must it appeal to the uninitiate? The wife of the sports fan? The non-sports fan? It seems very few sports movies are blockbusters, or meant to be so. The sports movie is content to have a smaller budget, hit a smaller reach, and yet the sports movie continues to have a place in American cinema. Strange.

    • James Banks
      May 1, 2014

      Thanks for the comment, Josh. That is a good point. Usually when sports movies are megahits, it is by accident, as was the case with “The Blindside” and, also, they are often hits at a more local level than with other blockbusters. For instance, it is difficult to imagine Bernard Levi enjoying “Moneyball” as thoroughly as George Will, considering that baseball is not a particularly popular sport in France. Perhaps the Scottish also make the occasional golfing drama, but I have not seen it (if anyone knows of any, please post a reference link.) But I think that sports films can connect us to a very human intuition. As Thomas Hobbes said, humans naturally have a passion for glory, Sports provides a medium in which we continue to pursue this in a way that is socially acceptable. It has actually done this in western narratives for a long time–both “The Iliad” and “The Aeneid” have books devoted to gaming and Pindarus made a name by composing odes for the classical Olympic champions. This is a pursuit of glory with which we can still sympathize, while other methods of attaining it have become distasteful. Today, we do not admire the man who eviscerates enemies the way that Achilleus does; we consider him to be insane. But we admire the swiftest in the marathon as much as his contemporaries would have. Of course, this is something that goes beyond formal narratives to the way that sports fanatics broadly speak of sports. (I sometimes have an intuition that the games between the Yankees and the Red Sox is an allegory for the epic clash of Good and Evil.) The difference is that, with formal narratives, we can actually control the narrative.

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