Movie Review: Draft Day (2014)
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph
Starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Patrick St. Esprit, Arian Foster, Josh Pence, Ellen Burstyn, and Tom Welling
In 1989, Major League told the tale of the woeful Cleveland Indians’ rise from worst to first with a bunch of has-beens, misfits, and bush league losers. Life eerily imitated art in this instance as soon after, the Cleveland Indians became perennial contenders during the 1990s including two World Series appearances in 1995 and 1997. Could the Draft Day do the same for the Cleveland Browns, with just a month away from their most important draft in as many years? The city of Cleveland sure hopes so. They are a franchise that’s made it to the NFL playoffs just once since 1999, when they returned to the NFL as an expansion team. Before then they had a great legacy, albeit not without stories of hard luck; they were one of the classic teams of the NFL, winning multiple championships before there was a Super Bowl. They had competitive teams with the most fanatic of fans but Cleveland is also home to bad fortune at the worst possible moments–right at the doormat of the Super Bowl. The AFC Championship heartbreaks are well-documented, as are the highs and lows of the Bill Belichick years, Art Modell’s villainous move to Baltimore in 1995 and their two Super Bowl wins in 2000 and 2013. The new incarnation of the team is a running punchline, and the city has endured as many starting quarterbacks as potholes since the days of Bernie Kosar. So it’s not fiction when they are referred to in the latest Kevin Costner film as the most desperate team in the NFL.
The Seattle Seahawks have the number 1 pick but are trying to move out to acquire future picks and ultimately save money. Patrick St. Esprit plays the Seahawks’ General Manager Tom Michaels who is given the task of finding a partner to fleece that pick to and get as much as they can, much like the St. Louis Rams did to the Washington Redskins in 2012 when they traded three first-round picks for the second overall pick that eventually became Robert Griffin III. Most believed when that happened that it could never happen again since it would be mortgaging the future of the team. Never say never.
Michaels’ first call is to Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr., General Manager of the Browns and son to the late fan-favorite head coach, Sonny Weaver, a Don Shula-type figurehead who was eventually fired by his son when he took over at GM. His replacement is Coach Penn (Denis Leary) who makes no secrets about wanting a running back and not wanting to develop a rookie quarterback. Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) runs the team and makes it clear to Weaver that he wants one thing: make a splash and make it big. Like the real Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam, his impatience is a virtue.
There are three prospects weighing heavily on Weaver’s mind. Wisconsin’s Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) is the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck and even though the Browns have Brian Drew (Tom Welling), a quarterback who has won, he is coming off of major knee surgery. Yes, Browns fans, it is eerily similar to your current situation with Brian Hoyer. Since it’s Cleveland, a running back must be considered and in this story it’s Florida State’s Ray Jennings (played by Houston Texans’ running back Arian Foster) whose father Earl (Terry Crews) played for the Browns. Finally, there’s the Ohio State Buckeye linebacker/defensive end, Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a passionate player who makes his feelings heard on Twitter. The Browns currently own the 7th pick overall and a costly move up is justified, if Callahan is the pick.
It’s not all X’s and O’s though. On the morning of the draft, Weaver is dealing with the reality that his girlfriend, Ali (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant. Already dealing with the high stakes of the day, Weaver finds it difficult to express his feelings. It might not matter that much if she wasn’t also the Browns’ salary cap specialist. Want more? Well, there’s the Rick the Intern (Griffin Newman) who compounds the stress with his constant need to have his hands held and Weaver’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette) are in town for the reading of his father’s will. For those looking for accuracy of the NFL Draft process and the portrayal of the league itself, Draft Day does that extremely well. There’s great attention to detail in analyzing old draft picks, how draft analysts got it all wrong, and as the clock ticks down, the temperature rises. War room struggles between GM and coach, consultations with scouting teams should pump blood through the veins of NFL diehards. So will the process of background checking, fishing with other teams for trades, and effort to recreate the media spectacle is ever-present with cameos by draft gurus like Mike Mayock, Mel Kiper, and ESPN front man Chris Berman amongst others. Those hailing from the city of Cleveland will be glad to know that most of the footage was shot locally, having lived and worked downtown, I can confirm many of the exterior shots will be recognizable, as will the local drinking holes and the squawking of familiar voices on local sportstalk stations. Don’t forget about the cameos–lots and lots of cameos. Outside of Sean Combs who plays Callahan’s agent, the characters do have a sincerity and feeling that they are who they say they are. For example, Garner’s Ali feels like someone who grew up in Cleveland and devoted her education to one day help her favorite team. Costner walks and talks like someone who has been around the game his whole life but is not yet confident in his ability to seal the deal.
There are some things that seem sensationalized for the big screen that will ring the fire alarms of NFL draftniks. Trading the #1 overall pick feels like it should’ve been something that had been in the works in the days building to the draft, not just thought of 13 hours before the first pick is chosen. When you are lost in the accuracy of the film, the ultimate solution to all of the Browns’ problems is so unlikely that it will remind you that Draft Day is made of the stuff in fairy tales. I guarantee there is not a single general manager that can pull off what Weaver does, but that’s part of the fun of it I guess. Draft Day never gets so heavy that it will alienate casual NFL fans, in fact it might help explain why the draft has exploded in popularity in the last 10 years; it’s also not a cake made of pure frosting. How the story unfolds and builds to a climax recreates that moment for all 32 teams for that night. All that’s missing is a narrator to begin the film, “What if I told you that one day doesn’t make a draft but a single pick can change the course of a city…”
Hollywood has been interested in the offseason assembly of professional sports teams for quite some time. In films about major league baseball, there is the effort to see how it all plays out. We needed to see how the motley crew of Major League finished. In Moneyball, which Draft Day tries to evoke a little–even showing another Cleveland franchise getting swindled– we got to see Billy Bean’s philosophies play out to the end. We also got to see all of the team’s needs and potential solutions to replace them. I wished Draft Day was more thorough in explaining Weaver’s reasoning, from a more analytical point of view. In Jerry Macguire, we get a dynamic athlete-agent relationship mixed with an eye-roll inducing love story, all of the risks culminated to one shining moment. Where Draft Day loses some gusto is that the risks here only matter for one day out of the NFL year. The NFL Draft has seven rounds, spread out over three days so even if the Browns were to win the first day of the draft, their work is not done yet, it should be just beginning of the season. So there’s a false sense that Weaver is satisfied by the end of this film at his work. Sadly the actual Browns have never been considered winners of the draft, much less a Super Bowl and so while the characters in Draft Day dust off their hands and loosen their ties, if any team were as satisfied with their first day of the draft, they’d end up just as desperate as Cleveland.
The 30 for 30 film, From Elway to Marino is a much better example of the real stakes of the NFL Draft, because we know how those picks played out and the drama that unfolded between those decisions created tidal waves in the NFL. Like voting US Presidents, it’s best not to make snap judgments on draft picks during or soon after the process. So by trying to tell a present-day story and give hope of the future, celebrating anything seems awfully premature and that makes Draft Day somewhat anti-climactic or even foolish for manufacturing a sense of accomplishment when nothing has been achieved yet. Still, as we march towards May’s NFL Draft, it’s a good behind-the-scenes of one day of the draft, and points out that there’s a big story behind every single pick.