Along with Moneyball, Kevin Costner’s new film Draft Day points to an odd trend of late: sports movies that have almost nothing to do with playing sports. Some of them, like 42 and Trouble With the Curve manage to be sports-adjacent, but Moneyball and Draft Day seem to push a none-too-subtle message: the really interesting stories in pro sports have nothing to do with athletes themselves; all the real action is with the white-collar — not to mention lily-white — management behind the scenes.
This time the sport is football, leading up to the NFL draft which, according to the movie, is some big event including a raucous crowd of fans at Madison Square Garden. I don’t know; I don’t really follow football very much. I do know that the first picks in the draft go to the worst teams of the previous season, and this year that goes to the Cleveland Browns. And just this morning their general manager, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), traded that first-round first-pick to the Seattle Seahawks.
Of course, this is an unpopular move. The new ringbanging head coach (Denis Leary) is outraged that he moved all the way to Cleveland and doesn’t get to dictate the roster of his team. The jetsetting owner (Frank Langella) had big press plans, and if he doesn’t get headlines by drafting the swaggering, Heisman-winning quarterback (Josh Pence) he’ll get them by firing Sonny. But the trade isn’t the only complication for the first-round pick: one former Browns star (Terry Crews) wanted his son to get that slot, Sonny’s indicated that he’s going to pull in the charming, down-to-earth Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), and the current quarterback (Tom Welling) dreads being relegated to second-string. And of course the fans are calling for Sonny’s head.
This is already pretty complicated, so of course we need to ladle on an office romance with the woman in charge of staying under the payroll cap (Jennifer Garner). It’s completely extraneous and artificially dramatic; there’s no good reason that Sonny needs to keep this relationship a secret, and there’s no real chemistry between Costner and Garner anyway.
But as many moving parts as there are, Draft Day works pretty smoothly for the most part. Like I said, I’m not a big football fan, so I wasn’t hooked on the story from the get-go. But writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman build up all these components — except the unnecessary romance — to a fine climactic sequence of negotiations as delicately balanced as any swiss-watch caper film, and watching all the pieces falling into place was delightful.
There’s little I can pick out as major problems here, especially if you ignore the romantic subplot. There’s a lot of visual clutter with multilayered visual wipes and split-screens that I imagine are meant to recall the heavy use of dynamic graphics on televised football coverage, but after a while it just feels like director Ivan Reitman got a new toy for Christmas and is eager to try out all the settings. But as distracting as it can get in the aggregate, each separate composition can be pretty fun, so I’m even willing to let this slide.
You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy Draft Day if you get dragged along to a screening, but if you’re not already a fan this isn’t going to make you one, and there are probably better things to do with your time. And in part that’s because this football movie is only barely about football at all. At best, you could make a case that it’s about fantasy football — it may then be the first movie based on a role-playing game to not be awful — but it’s really about management pushing employees around their own game board made of money. And even a non-fan like me knows that the inherent drama and conflict of a football game is more viscerally engaging than that.
Worth It: not unless you’re already into inside-football.