Note: A version of this review was originally published in Kitchen Drawer, Volume 6, Issue 6. To read more, visit kitchendrawer.net
2014 wasn't a great year for the NFL. Between the Ray Rice scandal, the Adrian Peterson scandal, "Deflate-gate," the continuing debates over the long-term health effects of playing pro football and a host of other problematic issues on and off the field, one of the nation's most venerable institutions took a serious hit to its reputation. In retrospect, the gentle sports drama Draft Day (released in the early part of the year) almost seems like a nostalgic throwback to a simpler time – a time when the biggest thing football fans had to worry about was how well their team would fare on the field.
Our story focuses on fictional Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams), a man currently tasked with determining who the Browns will pick in the first round of the NFL draft. The Browns have the seventh pick, which should enable them to snag Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman, 42), a talented young player who could seriously beef up the team's defense. Alas, team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon) doesn't think the addition of a defensive player is a terribly exciting first-round choice, and demands that Sonny find a way to inspire the fan base. Working under pressure, Sonny makes a desperate trade – he gives the Seattle Seahawks all of the Browns' first-round picks for the next three years in exchange for the very first pick of the draft this year. The end result: the Browns will have the opportunity to pick up Bo Callahan (Josh Pence, The Social Network), the most talented quarterback in the nation. However, after making the trade, Sonny begins to have second thoughts – is Bo really the player his team needs?
If you've seen the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, much of Draft Day will feel pretty familiar. Like that film, it's a sports movie which is far more interested in business than in sports; a detailed examination of the intense negotiations which take place between the folks who make the decisions behind the scenes. It's not quite as smart, well-acted or beautifully crafted as Moneyball, but it's not a bad imitation, either. Despite some moments of clunky dialogue (in one scene, Langella delivers a long monologue about a water slide and concludes it with, “Sonny, the point I'm making is that I need you to make a big splash”) and a generally predictable plot (after we see how likable Vontae is and how self-absorbed Bo is, there's little doubt about who Sonny will end up picking), I found myself on the edge of my seat by the time the heated last-minute negotiations started.
While the film as a whole doesn't quite reach the heights of Costner's best sports movies (the wickedly funny Bull Durham and the sentimental Field of Dreams are both gems), the actor himself is arguably even stronger. He's improved considerably with age, demonstrating a level of emotional depth and nuance that was often absent from his early work. The supporting cast is loaded with seasoned pros, including Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30) as Sonny's co-worker/girlfriend, Denis Leary (Rescue Me) as an irritable coach and Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) as Sonny's amusingly overbearing mother. The most impressive supporting performance is delivered by Boseman, who has demonstrated remarkable range over the past few years. He was convincing as both the noble Jackie Robinson in 42 and as the troubled, energetic James Brown in Get on Up, and here manages to create an eager young player whose occasional hotheadedness is outweighed by his fundamental sweetness. It's a lovely piece of work.
Back to those real-life NFL scandals for a minute. The film certainly never ventures into that territory, but I couldn't help but think about them throughout my Draft Day viewing experience. Here we have a portrait of men who aren't required to spend much time thinking about behavior scandals or health concerns or ethics debates. They only need to know how well their players will perform on the field. Like I said, there's something almost nostalgic about this – it's a snapshot of the NFL as we've long imagined it rather than a portrait of the NFL as it really is. As time passes, the football movie that seems most relevant is one that was made 15 years ago: Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, a no-holds-barred portrait of the league's deep-rooted corruption. It was dismissed by many as over-the-top and sensationalistic at the time, but its truths seem more resonant with each new season. Draft Day is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours, but sadly, it's also a fairy tale.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 2014