What is it with Kevin Costner and sports films? He’s given us the real life absurdity of minor league baseball in Bull Durham (1988) and played an improbable game of catch with his dad in Field of Dreams (1989). In 1996, he was a neurotic golfer who doesn’t believe in penalty strokes in Tin Cup. As the actor entered his early-40s, he gave us one last on-the-field portrait when he played an aging pitcher seeking statistical perfection at the end of his career in For Love of the Game (1999). Sports films are engrained in Kevin Costner’s DNA.
So, fourteen years after his most recent sports-related role, where does a 59-year-old actor go? Behind a desk as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns in Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day. Costner plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., an NFL executive who holds the seventh overall pick as he heads to work on the morning of the draft. His boss, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), is the owner of the Browns and wants to make a big splash in the draft, but the seventh pick may not be enough to get the job done. Sonny has his eye on a talented linebacker (Chadwick Boseman), but ownership doesn’t think spending a first round pick on a defensive player is sexy enough to keep the fan base satisfied.
In the opening scenes of the film, Sonny deals away some of the Browns’ draft picks to surge his way to the top spot, mortgaging the team’s future in favor of its present. Fans and management are thrilled that the team is in a position to draft Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), the Heisman-winning god of college football who posted eye-popping stats during his amateur career. Every football analyst considers Sonny’s pick to be a no-brainer. But, Sonny isn’t so sure. There’s something about Callahan that nags at him, a character issue, an “intangible” as scouts like to call it. The GM finds himself resisting the urging of his coach and his scouting staff to make the safe choice even though it might be career suicide.
Costner has always had an Everyman earnestness about him. He has no difficulty selling a character to an audience. His performances seem effortless, but they also suffer a bit from familiarity. Sonny Weaver, Jr. is indistinguishable from Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel (2013) or Thomas Harper in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). Costner has entered that part of his career where you get the feeling that he’s more or less playing himself or a persona he has created for himself during his years in the business. His performance doesn’t impact the film in any detrimental way, but it doesn’t elevate it, either.
Draft Day has quite a few clichés littering its script. Sonny’s father died a year ago, and he’s still trying to measure up to his old man’s legend. To make matters worse (for Sonny and for movie clichés), he fired his own father in his last season coaching the team, but he arguably had a noble reason for doing so. His coach (Denis Leary) doesn’t trust him and threatens to quit when things don’t go his way. His girlfriend, Ali (Jennifer Garner), just happens to be the team accountant, so that she can have a little extra screen time in a thankless, pointless role. Griffin Newman injects some humor into the proceedings as Rick the intern and becomes the only true surprise in a cast of usual suspects.
As I watched the film at an advance screening, I kept coming back to one thought: Who is the audience for Draft Day? Casual sports fans may be bored by a football movie with no football being played. Sonny is assembling a team for the season to come. It’s all analysis and conjecture until the ball is snapped at some later date. Draft Day will draw comparisons to the baseball film Moneyball (2011), but in that film the audience saw the fruits of Billy Beane’s managerial labor. The team being assembled took the field and played ball. The audience saw theory become reality. There is no such resolution offered by Draft Day.
Ultimately, Draft Day is a solid piece of competent filmmaking. If that sounds like bland praise, that’s because the film itself is a little bland. You won’t be disappointed that you spent your time or money on Draft Day, but it’s not a film that will stick with you for very long. It’s like a snack at the stadium. It’ll tide you over until you can get something more substantial.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.