Draft Day – Film Review
I first saw the trailer for Draft Day at a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember asking the person I was with if she thought Draft Day was actually going to be made. When the trailer concluded, and the April release was mentioned, I assumed the worst. Films that seem to be snuck into the theaters with very little publicity tend to be those that are poorly made. Studios are afraid to bolster them with heavy marketing budgets because the likely return on their investment is too low. Aside from that, even as a die-hard follower of the NFL, the idea of making an entire film about the process of the draft doesn’t strike me as particularly exciting. I can only imagine what the general public thinks. When I told a friend about my plans to see Draft Day, her first assumption was that I was seeing a film about enlistment in the armed services. When I explained the premise, she asked if the film would show any “real” football. In the face of that perfectly valid reaction, I wondered how the film would attempt to ratchet up the tension. I pictured middle aged white men in boardrooms screaming about news delivered via speakerphones in the center of mahogany tables, like Dr. Strangelove minus stakes of actual significance. That comprised approximately 30% of the screen time. What I didn’t foresee was the heavy reliance on the gimmicky feeling split-screen phone calls. That comprised another 30% 0f the screen time. The remaining 40% bounds between a perfunctory romantic entanglement and vignettes of troubled or murky relationships. It is this last portion on which the minimal plot turns.
The protagonist is Sonny Weaver Jr., a grizzled GM coping with the recent death of his father (the former coach of the team) and an overbearing owner. As if that wasn’t enough adversity to overcome, the kicker is that Weaver is the GM of the Cleveland Browns, arguably the worst team in the league. Weaver is portrayed by Kevin Costner, a role which seems type cast for him. If you’ve seen any Kevin Costner film, you know what to expect: occasional brooding, rudimentary salt of the earth charm, and a generally beleaguered nature. The Browns haven’t been relevant in a very long time. In spite of the structure of the draft (in which the team with the worst record receives the first pick, and ostensibly the best player available), the Browns are perennially last in the standings. The owner intimates that the team needs to make a “splash” and that if they don’t, the “splash” will be the firing of Weaver. In a scene that should be laying the groundwork for one of the main conflicts of the film (Weaver’s autonomy as a GM v. placating the owner), the delivery of the first cringe worthy line in the film sinks it. At the end of an exchange about needing to fill seats and sell tickets, the owner says “Remember, Sonny: people pay to get wet.” I understand the desire to avoid clichés such as “fans want wins/championships/
cheap beer” but commonplace as they are, any would have been preferable to that miserable quip. I can’t imagine a writer penning that into the script thinking “BOOM! Eat it Costner!” So, instead of watching Weaver head back to his office with a sense of trepidation, you’re left shaking your head, wondering if there’s any reason he should be worried about an owner who’s that much of a putz. Thankfully, the dynamic deepens, as you’re introduced to the head coach of the team, Vince Penn, played by Denis Leary. The coach is an exile of the Dallas Cowboys, possessing one Superbowl ring and the mouth of Rex Ryan. The coach was personally picked by the owner, and as such, knows he doesn’t have to answer to Weaver. The casting of Leary was as fitting as the casting of Costner. He’s unlikable, unreasonably smug, and his womanizing sets the table for the best rejoinder in the film, when the salary cap manager (and awkward love interest of Weaver), Ali, played by Jennifer Garner, responds to Coach Penn’s incessant waving of his championship ring with a scorcher of a question. “How is it that the ultimate prize in the most macho sport ever invented is a piece of jewelry?” He has no answer beyond an uncomfortable scrunching of his face. Unfortunately, not all the banter involving Coach Penn is great. When Coach Penn attempts to secretly orchestrate a trade for a running back and more draft picks, Weaver vetoes it, stating that he knows the running back Penn wants to include, and that while “he looks like a Tarzan, he plays like a Jane.” Penn’s follow up is “I’ve got 52 Tarzans in that locker room. I could use a Jane!” Setting aside the fact that if the Browns actually had a locker room full of Tarzans, they probably wouldn’t be the laughing stock of the league, why would a football team ever need a Jane? Equally unfortunately, not all the casting is spot on. P. Diddy as the agent of the presumed #1 pick is more of a distraction than anything else in the film, and with his scarce lines and tendency to steal the scene, feels unnecessary. The stereotypical poindexter intern seems to be included only as a punching bag for abuse that provides no characterization of anyone and brings nothing to the film. But the greatest flaws don’t lie in small casting errors or flat writing; they lie in the constant necessity to suspend your disbelief, and of the shoehorned, flawed romance between Weaver and Ali.
The first instance requiring a massive suspension of disbelief involves a desperate trade that Weaver makes with a rival GM. Aside from the exorbitant cost of the trade itself, the likelihood that the GM would survive the trade is unthinkable. Yes, every owner wants their team to ‘make a splash.’ But no owner would be satisfied with severely mortgaging the next several years of their future in order to do so. Even Dan Snyder isn’t that delusional. The fact that the owner congratulates Weaver on making the most unequivocally lopsided trade in history is preposterous. The next two suspensions also involve trades, but these trades take place while the draft is underway. The first involves a rookie GM, but the idea that the rookie GM would cave so easily while sitting in a room filled with his various advisers seems far-fetched. But the latter, in which the propagator of the earlier blockbuster trade makes another trade with Weaver is the most ludicrous of all. In the face of these unbelievable maneuvers, the romance between Ali and Weaver seems almost believable. Almost.
Ali is an implicit sex object. Strutting around the office in a pencil skirt and towering heels, the male gaze is on her from the onset. At first, this is tolerable, as she seems to navigate the masculine environment well. While not insufferably standoffish for the sake of it, she makes it clear that she does her job and no one else’s. But whatever “look at me, I’m an independent woman in a man’s world” points she earns from her rebuttals of coach Penn and clever digs at Weaver are quickly thrown out the window when you realize that 1. she’s in a relationship with Weaver, 2. that relationship is meant to be clandestine, and not by her choice, and 3. the majority of the serious conversations between the two of them occur in the sexually charged environment of the closet. The film itself makes light of this by having the intern and security chief interrupt them in the closet at various points. When coach Penn reveals that even he knows of their relationship, and does so in a less than respectful manner, Weaver does not berate him for it. Instead, he steps awkwardly into kissing distance (why do films continue to create weird homoerotic tension in this fashion? Do directors actually think two men about to come to blows bring their faces three inches apart and whisper threats to each other?) before saying ‘you better respect my dad.’ The insults of Ali go unaddressed. Simply because the situation improves by the conclusion of the film does not make the preceding interactions any more acceptable.
And yet, Draft Day is not terrible. In spite of its faults, the film still manages to draw you into the frenetic environment of draft day – the anticipation, the anarchy, the aspirations. It has genuinely touching moments, particularly portrayed by actors in minor roles. You have to be a real misanthrope not to feel the tiniest hint of warmth at seeing someone cry tears of joy and relief when their lifelong dream is realized. The entire humanization of the event is a refreshing touch in general. There is thankfully limited talk about ‘intangibles’ and what little there is is discussed in a satirical manner. “Get this, he doesn’t speak French so good.” Some of the cameo appearances are enjoyable, such as that of Rich Eisen, NFL Network’s ubiquitous TV personality, interviewing the Browns’ fictitious owner, and Ray Lewis being teased for not being selected until the 26th overall pick. Film making, like scouting and drafting players, is not an exact science. When you feel the film resonate, you wish that it could have maintained it throughout.
Early in the film, Weaver is enamored with an inside linebacker out of Ohio State, and is set to take him with the seventh overall pick. In reality, in the 2013 draft, with the sixth overall pick, the Cleveland Browns selected Barkevious Mingo, a linebacker from LSU. True to Browns tradition, he played like a second rounder. Draft Day was not the bust it could have been. But it is not the film it could have been either.
MUST SEE: Exciting, thought provoking, and impeccably crafted. There are a variety of reasons that a film could be ranked highly: impressive cinematography, an engaging narrative, a stellar cast performing up to their talent – but the common factor among films ranked this way is that whatever flaws they have are minor, and are transcended by the heights of their other attributes.
WATCHABLE: Worth the $14 it took to see, but nothing you’d hype to others. You’ll enjoy yourself, probably, but you’ll soon forget it.
AVOID: Don’t you do it. Actively discourage others from watching it, assuming they lend credence to your opinion.