In Draft Day, the Cleveland Browns are an average football team – with an above average number seven pick in the upcoming NFL draft. On the morning of the draft, general manager Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), the son of a beloved Browns head coach, is embroiled in a firestorm of contentious pressures from fans, his coaching staff, the media, and team owner, Harvey Molina (Frank Langella) – not to mention girlfriend/Browns financial analyst, Ali Parker (Jennifer Garner).
In an effort to please everyone and “make a splash,” Weaver agrees to gamble with Cleveland’s future in a punishing trade for the Seattle Seahawks’ number one pick – which, with the right choice, could drastically change the Browns’ fortune and give Ohio football fans a legitimate shot at Super Bowl glory. Without time to regret the decision, Weaver and his staff scramble to determine which NFL hopeful is the best fit for their program. Cleveland fans want famous quarterback, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), but before Weaver makes the biggest choice of his life, he must determine if Callahan has the skills, not just the hype, to help turn the Browns ball club around.
Filmmaking veteran Ivan Reitman directed Draft Day, delivers an enjoyable sports drama that, at the same time, will likely make die-hard football fans roll their eyes. In spite of potentially career-ending stakes for the Weaver character, Reitman maintains a light tone and fast pace, jumping from one crisis (and phone call) to the next, while injecting a steady stream of details that build toward a silly, albeit entertaining, third act resolution. While sports history references as well as cameos from ESPN personalities and NFL players will give extra value for football fans, those same viewers will also need to suspend a lot of disbelief once Weaver starts wheeling and dealing.
The plot is straightforward enough, but instead of simply relying on the excitement of NFL Draft Day and Weaver’s underdog attempt to turn a number seven draft pick into Cinderella story magic, Reitman (along with writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph) overstuff the film with personal drama. Balancing Weaver’s larger ambitions with a frustrated (not to mention pregnant) girlfriend allows a whimsical break from pissing contests with rival ball club managers; yet, a demanding mother (who is completely insensitive to the growing likelihood her son’s career is on the line) muddles the film with unnecessary and unconvincing melodrama.
In script form, this “sports family” tangent, centered on beloved Coach Weaver, Sr., his widowed wife, and their son, Weaver, Jr., might have produced an impactful message about the sacrifices of family, but in the final film any remnants of the arc are little more than vestigial tissue that distract from what Reitman cares about most – the thrill of behind-the-scenes draft deals.
As mentioned, football fans who pour over their own mock draft picks each year will, no doubt, find the film’s interpretation of the event outright absurd at times; though, a charming performance from Costner manages to hold the movie together – despite some very strange directorial choices. In an endeavor to make cross-country phone calls stimulating, Reitman toys with an enhanced (and constantly shifting) split-screen effect that, if it weren’t for a commanding turn from Costner, could have been dizzying. Fortunately, the veteran actor appears to relish in Weaver’s view of the Draft Day dilemma, which requires idealism, pragmatism, as well as a sense of humor, resulting in an absorbing and often downright relatable protagonist. That said, the character’s evolution throughout the movie isn’t particularly nuanced – making it hard to believe that Weaver is actually in control of the situation (as opposed to just a lucky opportunist).
Garner helps to put out fires, sometimes literally, and injects a much-needed dose of female perspective in a film where most of the men are shouting at one another – e.g., Denis Leary’s Coach Penn. Penn isn’t much of a stretch for Leary but the character’s outrageous tantrums yield some compelling face-offs with Weaver. Unsurprisingly, Chadwick Boseman (42) is, again, a standout as Vontae Mack – a misunderstood ball player that helps remind viewers, and Weaver, that there’s more to the NFL draft than stats and contracts. Tom Welling (Smallville) is utilized in a similar capacity as current Browns QB Brian Drew – providing a sincere and endearing performance in the part. Despite limited screen time, fans of the former Superman finally have reason to think the actor might be taken seriously in future adult roles – especially now that he’s grown out of his boyish CW looks.
Reitman means well, and Draft Day often succeeds at reflecting sport fan sentimentality, but his execution is still pretty clumsy. Outside of the principle characters, most supporting players are thinly scripted caricatures – which also make it relatively easy to predict where all the puzzles pieces will fit as the narrative plays out. This isn’t to say that audiences will guess every plot point ahead of time, but in spite of high-powered trades, Draft Day rarely offers truly engaging surprises. Ultimately, the only genuinely shocking revelation is just how far Reitman ventures to test disbelief in the final thirty minutes.
As a result, Draft Day falls short of sports drama greatness, films that are simultaneously entertaining, educational, and insightful, landing it in a guilty-pleasure middle ground where the target audience will need to temper hope of authenticity and non-sports fans will miss out on several of the most cutting references. Still, thanks to a solid performance from Coster and some witty character beats, casual moviegoers should find adequate amusement in Reitman’s film - alongside any die-hard NFL fans that can set aside encyclopedic knowledge of actual GM strategy and appreciate Sonny Weaver’s Hail Mary pass in Draft Day.
If you’re still on the fence about Draft Day, check out the trailer below:
Draft Day runs 120 minutes and is Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language and sexual references. Now playing in theaters.
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