It’s no secret that NFL football has long surpassed baseball as America’s favorite pastime. But not everyone knows why: Yes, the game is faster, the hits are harder, the video games cooler. But the biggest reason, I might argue, is the rise of fantasy football. Thanks to fantasy football, virtually everyone’s a GM, with their own take on which running back is faster, which quarterback has the better gun. (There’s fantasy baseball, too, but like everything else about baseball, it’s more time-consuming and wonkier.) Combine that with ESPN’s near compulsive coverage of the sport and its yearly draft, it was just a matter of time before some smart studio exec greenlit a film that wasn’t about the action on the field, but the behind-the-scenes machinations off of it.
Enter Ivan Reitman's Draft Day, which has clearly been made with the full cooperation of the NFL and ESPN. And why not? It builds the brand.
Kevin Costner is playing a variation of many other characters he’s played before—from Bull Durham’s Crash Davis to Tin Cup’s Roy McAvoy. In fact, I think the film is using a kind of Kevin Costner shorthand: We take it on faith that Costner is good at his job and smarter than the other guys, and has a jaded, knowing longview of the sport—because that’s what Costner does.
Here he’s playing Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr., whose back is against the wall on draft day. Early in the film, the team owner (Frank Langella) tells him that if he doesn’t make a big move, he’s a goner. So he virtually sells the farm to get the first pick (from The Seattle Seahawks—oops). But who will he take with it?
Although I enjoyed Draft Day well enough, it has many flaws.
For one, all the attempts to give Sonny a personal life—his domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn), his pregnant girlfriend who also happens to be the team’s CFO (Jennifer Garner), even his relationship with his late father—are sketchily assembled, in a “checking off the necessary character points” kind of way.
Also, as much fun as it is to see Costner wheeling and dealing, winning and losing games of “chicken” with his fellow GMs, the film never fully convinces us that Costner is actually good at his job. Some of the moves he makes are downright bone-headed. At one point, he is the recipient of some really good luck.
Much of the action revolves around the sure-thing overall first pick quarterback, whom Sonny isn’t quite sold on. Once again the film is vague: They never make it clear if Sonny’s instincts on this kid are right.
Still, probably because of all the cooperation they got with the big players, the film just feels right. Commissioner Roger Goodell is actually there on draft day. The maneuvers, the kids being drafted, the behind-the-scenes chatter, even the game footage that Sonny pours over with his staff—it all seems legit, adding to our overall enjoyment.
Draft Day is a fun time for arm chair GMs and those with nostalgia for 90s-era Costner. If, on the venn diagram, you happen to reside where those two things overlap, you’ll be in movie heaven.