Review by Bill Graham
If you’re a fan of the NFL you know how much is at stake each year during the NFL draft. High draft picks can often change the course of a season, or even a decade. Sure, there are notable gems found in later rounds each year, like Tom Brady, but for the most part it’s all about your first-round pick. Ivan Reitman is playing his new film Draft Day about the NFL draft not for laughs but for a sly sense of drama that picks on what most avid fans know: even guarantees aren’t guarantees in the NFL draft.
Enter the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), who is slotted with a high single digit draft pick but not the coveted number one pick. On an unlucky streak, and just two years into his own career, he is feeling the pressure from the fans and even his boss, owner Harvey Molina (Frank Langella). “Make a splash,” says Harvey. The inclination is apparent: do it or find another job. So that’s Sonny’s task. But as I said earlier, not everything is a guaranteed success. It’s why teams are willing to trade away high draft picks for middle-rounders or future stock. Everyone is gambling. You sell the future to guarantee present success, or just the opposite. You bolster your future by selling the present. Either way, no one knows ahead of time what the smart choice is. That’s the drama throughout the high stakes Draft Day.
Peppered with quality performances, the film does a remarkable job of having a lot of flash yet still feels natural about it. Draft day is definitely a dog and pony show, so it works with the reality of it all. The NFL’s direct involvement is clearly present as well. Official team names, fields, and jerseys are everywhere. The actual draft site in New York becomes a focal point for the film as well, and you can see all the typical glitz and glam that goes with it. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell makes a few appearances and if that isn’t a sign of the NFL’s endorsement of the film I’m not sure what else can convince you. Written by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, we are given a fictitious meticulous look behind the scenes of what happens in the hours leading up to the big day. For no sports action actually occurring on screen—OK, there are a few scenes of game tape of the draft prospects in college—the film manages to keep you on your seat.
There are some clever moments that involve familial ties strung through the drama of the day—a sure way to garner emotion from audiences. The pressure Sonny is under is immense. His job is on the line while he makes trades and moves around the draft board. Making matters worse is Coach Penn (Denis Leary), who isn’t a fan of the moves he is making. They have a player in mind already but Sonny knows it’s not a big splash. Their current QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling) is fresh off an injury that sidelined him the past season and the biggest prospect is a cocky but fantastic QB out of Wisconsin who is the next “sure thing”. All of these things he has to juggle along with his girlfriend and coworker Ali (Jennifer Garner), head of player payroll, revealing that she is pregnant. Should I mention the storyline that Sonny actually fired his legendary coaching dad in his first year as GM? Yeah, it’s a lot to jam into 109 minutes and yet is handled without a hitch for this hellacious day-in-the-life drama.
Someone also did their homework on how to spice the visual aspects of the film to make transitions between teams, locales, and phone calls work. They utilize a comic book inspired panel system that splits the screen in half to show two sides but they will wipe and transition one side or another. Even the border doesn’t sit still during these moments, allowing frames to bleed into each other. Again, it’s a bit of flash that gussies up what might otherwise be a bit boring visually if not dramatically as well. All of this is to say that the film works. There’s the entertaining drama along with some touching moments that remarkably mimic real-life drama in the NFL each season. QBs are traded without much remorse. It’s a cutthroat world and Draft Day captures the intensity and drama of it all while also being a smart glimpse at what life is like for those making these kinds of decisions. Best of all, though, you don’t need to be a sports fan for the film to work. You’re given enough information to understand and not flounder. Sharp dialogue, well-researched information, and an ability to provide drama where you might not consider it, Draft Day is a pleasure to watch.