I like watching people who are good at their jobs. It’s a simple joy, seeing someone be extraordinarily competent. You don’t want to watch them just walk through their day - you want to see them challenged and almost bested - but you do want to see them handle the problems thrown at them. It’s kind of inspiring.
Draft Day is kind of inspiring in that way. Kevin Costner brings his full paternal weight to the role of the Cleveland Browns’ GM, a man who finds himself wrongfooted at the beginning of the day and spends the next few hours putting out personal and professional fires while trying to save not just his job but his team. The film takes place over just a few hours on draft day - when the NFL teams make their picks of the up and coming college football stars - and Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr packs those hours with phone calls where he wheels and deals his way to an extraordinary victory that never even comes close to the playing field.
Yes, there is almost no football in this football movie. This is a business film, a deal movie, that happens to be set in the world of football. The only draft I know is the one Ted Nugent dodged, but that doesn’t matter. The movie is about this man who has been humbled clawing his way back to the top, and Draft Day gives you all the clues and context you need to understand. Just as you don’t need to be a Wall Street trader to get The Wolf of Wall Street, you don’t need to have seen a single football game to get Draft Day.
It does help if you’ve seen some movies, though. Draft Day’s tight and often funny script, by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, does a thing I really like - it acknowledges and dives into cliches, and instead of subverting them makes them part of a larger whole. Take for example Chadwick Boseman’s Vontae Mack, a good player who is a bit of a showboat but is, deep inside, a great guy. How do we know he’s a great guy? He’s introduced skipping draft day in New York City to spend time with his family, including the two orphaned children of his sister, who he is taking to tumbling class. Like, could this be any more of a sign that everything going to work out for Vontae? The thrill in Draft Day isn’t whether Vontae’s going to sign to the Browns, it’s how he’s going to sign to the Browns while all the other deserving characters also get their happy endings.
The script throws in enough curves along the way (do they throw curves in football? Spirals, maybe?) to keep you guessing about those hows. Each new obstacle seems insurmountable until Costner, with the grave air of a dad who is forever disappointed in you, kicks it to the curb.
Let’s talk about Costner. One of Sonny’s obstacles is dealing with the fact that Jennifer Garner’s Ali, his secret girlfriend (he’s not cheating - she’s secret because they work together), is pregnant with his child. How does Costner not have a noble brood already, working a farm and crafting wood items to sell at the market on weekends before going home for a hearty dinner of meat and potatoes? It’s actually weird because the patriarchal nature that Costner wears so well - he’s Superman’s dad now! - fits into the relationship the GM has with his players. Being a dad should come naturally to him!
Costner is a no-bullshit Midwest presence, being decent and fair but also brooking no whining from players who don’t understand what is necessary for the good of the team. It’s a great role for him, one that allows him to mine maximum impact from minor moments of weakness. Draft Day is a solid, down the middle movie, and Costner gives it the solid, down the middle spine it needs.
Garner gets mostly wasted as Ali; the script gives her so little to do that when one smug character asks her to get him a coffee (that is very much not her job) I was worried she would. Contrast that with Frank Langella who, in a glorified cameo as the team owner, gets a full personality and arc. Ali is just there to support Sonny by being stern but ultimately forgiving.
The big standout to me was Chadwick Boseman; one of the most exciting young actors going, Boseman takes a character who could be Rod Tidwell II and invests him with life that goes beyond what’s in the script. Boseman range allows him to give Vontae depth far beyond the boisterous character we expect, giving him rage and sadness while still remaining a supporting character.
Ivan Reitman directs Draft Day with a new energy missing from his most recent work. The 21st century has not been kind to the man who brought us classics like Stripes and Ghostbusters, but this film shows he still has some life left in him. Most impressive is the way that Reitman approaches telling a story that’s largely filled with people talking on phones at each other; he uses sliding, always-in-motion split screens to keep these dialogue scenes dynamic. He holds our attention where it needs to be, cleanly telling his story while never allowing it to get static. One of the most interesting things in cinema these days is watching filmmakers struggle with how to tell stories that include emails, texts and phone calls. Reitman brings more excitement to these scenes than he did to his previous three or four films.
Draft Day is a talky, adult movie in the sense that it isn’t full of action, intrigue or special effects. It's kind of sub-Sorkin in that it's full of people wryly pontificating, solving problems and believing that what they do for a living is of vital importance. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'd love to see more sub-Sorkin movies that have good characters bouncing off of each other entertainingly. Draft Day is a film that knows how to tell a good, traditional story and tell it well.