Kind of like Moneyball for the professional football, Draft Day manages to find suspense, drama and, of course, humor—it’s directed by Ivan Reitman—in the inner machinations that make the annual NFL college draft so compelling for fans of the game. For others, not so much, but it’s highly doubtful that non-believers in America’s favorite pastime would go to see this movie or read this review. You’ve been forewarned.
Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) is the general manager of the long-suffering Cleveland Browns, and the son of that team’s legendary longtime coach—whom, incidentally, he fired. As sports jocks intone over the opening montage, Cleveland is a city born and bred of football. Football has been the mainstay through lousy weather and hard economic times. It matters. So when Sonny has the chance to pick the number-one college draft choice, quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), the city erupts in euphoria. Trouble is, in order to score the deal, Weaver has to give up the team’s next three number-one picks. Worse, something about this seemingly perfect pick nags at Weaver, who longs to put together his own team and see what happens. Counting on Sonny to pick them are Vontae Mack (a soulful Chadwick Boseman) and running back Ray Jennings (the real-life NFL player Arian Foster). Meanwhile, new head coach Penn (Denis Leary) fumes at being left out of Sonny’s considerations, and team owner Anthony Molina (an effectively creepy Frank Langella) puts the screws to the GM, demanding that he deliver “a splash.” Oh, and did I mention that Weaver’s coworker, and secret lover, Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant?
There’s a lot going on, much like the sidelines maneuvering of a Super Bowl game, and Reitman directs masterfully with split screens and an ever-present ticking clock in a corner of the screen. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Costner delivering yet another finely nuanced, mature performance. As the actor has aged, he’s maintained that sort of American-guy coolness, while tempering it with understated gravitas; it works really well here. Garner is smart and snappy, much like a modern-day Rosalind Russell. Draft Day is that rare drama these days in which characters act like adult, if flawed, individuals. More than just football, the story plumbs age-old themes like loyalty, heart, and filial relationships. It loses steam a bit as Sonny keeps trying to chip away at what awful secret Callahan may be concealing, but the last scenes in which Weaver masterfully coerces his staff into acceptance and manipulates other GMs to make a series of stunning deals is really exciting, even uplifting.
God, I can’t wait for football season.