Title: Draft Day
Director: Ivan Reitman
Major Players: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary
Out Of Five: 2.5
I was on the back foot from the word ‘go’ with Draft Day. My knowledge of NFL is zilch. I’ve never watched it and never felt the desire. No, not even the Super Bowl.
This film centres on an event known as the NFL Draft so if, like me, that means nothing to you, here’s the explanation bit. Apparently, this is one of the biggest days in the NFL year (NFL is the National Football League, and we’re talking American football here, not soccer). It’s when the teams in the league choose eligible college players to play for them during the following season. Each team has a position in the order of drafting, so the one in first place gets the best choice of players. But then it gets complicated, because the teams can trade these places to other teams – and those trades can also include players. I looked that up on Wikipedia, so don’t ask me any questions!
So that’s the setting. The focus of the film is the manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver Jnr (Kevin Costner) and it’s an especially stressful NFL Draft for him. He has the chance to re-build his team when he trades for the number one pick and he has his eye on several potential players. But there’s more. He’s at loggerheads with the team coach, Penn (Denis Leary), who opposes just about every decision he makes. His secret girlfriend, Ali (Jennifer Garner), is a work colleague and has just discovered she’s pregnant. And following the death of his father – and former team coach – his mother (Ellen Burstyn) is determined to scatter his ashes on the Browns’ pitch.
So he’s a man with a lot on his plate. And the film has more than a passing resemblance to Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011) – another sporting manager trying to put his team back together – so comparisons are inevitable. Draft Day comes second by a long way. In that film, it really didn’t matter if you didn’t understand baseball, but to follow the intricacies of Draft Day, you really do need some knowledge of American football and the day itself.
If the film gives us an accurate picture, the Draft is a massive event, on the scale of a major film premiere, complete with all the trappings outside – red carpet, interviews, press pen and the like. Inside, it’s closer to a cross between a massive trading floor and an awards ceremony. It’s also the culmination of all the dealing that’s gone on from the start of the film. To add to the tension, when a team’s turn to make its pick arrives, they have a deadline of just ten minutes, displayed on a massive digital clock. This countdown theme runs throughout the film, starting with the hours to go before the start of the Draft and the camera keeps returning to it. It’s all designed to create tension in the way you’d expect from a thriller – but it only works if you understand the machinations of the NFL.
Director Ivan Reitman’s thriller-like approach extends to the dealings between the Browns and other NFL teams, with the camera swooping in on their impressive stadiums. And their managers and coaches provide cameo roles for the familiar faces like Sam Elliott and Wallace Langham (Hodges from CSI:Crime Scene Investigation). Their phone conversations with Weaver are set in a split screen, which avoids looking outdated by allowing the separate parts of the screen to overlap, creating the impression of something closer to a face to face encounter.
But the tension sags in the middle and that’s because you don’t actually care very much about the characters. That especially applies to the unconvincing, chemistry-free relationship between Weaver and Ali. It’s so bad that you end up being distracted either by Jennifer Garner’s cripplingly high heels or by thinking that the part is pretty much superfluous. Costner’s Weaver is hard to support – he’s stubborn and self-centred – and Denis Leary has little to do as the team coach except snipe at him. And, unless my eyes were deceiving me, wearing a rather strange shade of pink lippy. I kid you not!
If you speak fluent NFL, it helps. But strip all that away, and Draft Day is just another story about gambling and risk taking in business. And it’s a slim one that we’ve seen over and over again. At 110 minutes, the film’s simply too long: 90 would have given us a tighter, more interesting film with the tension that it was meant to have. There’s probably an American football term for a player failing to reach his target, but I don’t know what it is.
Draft Day is released in the UK in cinemas, online and on demand on Friday, 3 October.