Sunday, April 13, 2014

Draft Day / *** (PG-13)

Sonny Weaver, Jr.: Kevin Costner
Ali: Jennifer Garner
Coach Penn: Denis Leary
Anthony Molina: Frank Langella
Vontae Mack: Chadwick Boseman
Chris Crawford: Sean Combs
Bo Callahan: Josh Pence
Tom Michaels: Patrick St. Esprit
Earl Jennings: Terry Crews
Ray Jennings: Arian Foster
Barb Weaver: Ellen Burstyn

Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph. Running time: 109 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language and sexual references).

Oh man, do I love football! I just can’t get enough of it. I wasn’t always this way. As a kid, I remember watching my father and his zeal for the game. He brainwashed us. We watched the New York Football Giants every Sunday in the fall. He plastered our walls with posters. The Super Bowl was a family event every year. He taped games and watched them over again. It’s the only reason he knew how to work the VCR.

For many years, I simply tried. I’d be in the same room that the game was on. I’d help make and eat the nachos we made for every halftime. I’d usually fall asleep on the floor for a good afternoon nap. But, eventually the brainwashing began to take. Finally, as an adult I started not merely watching the game, but studying it. I purchase a package on my television provider each year that costs me a ridiculous amount of money so I can have the opportunity to see any of the Sunday games I choose. Each year I watch more and more football, professional and otherwise.

In recent years, the National Football League has turned Draft Day into as much of a public event as it has always been for the league, thanks to their televising of the entire draft on the NFL Network. It’s amazing how many people are willing to watch a bunch of suits announcing the names and positions of the franchise picks for two days straight. It’s a testament to brainwashing. The PR people at the NFL are marketing geniuses. I bet they could figure a way to fix our national debt by getting the public to buy it back from themselves.

So now, the NFL has teamed up with Hollywood to bring us “Draft Day”. Essentially, it is the ultimate sports picture, with the underdogs rising to the challenge of competing against the best on the big game day, except this time the big game is the business of buying players and trading pick positions so that the worst teams in the NFL can bolster their rosters with the best new recruits. Director Ivan Reitman has called in one of the most sure fire veteran sports flick heroes to anchor this endeavor with Kevin Costner. Actually, his entire roster is made up mostly of some of the best veteran players in Hollywood—the sexy yet business like Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Ellen Burstyn, former NFL player turned sitcom and action star Terry Crews, hip-hop and entertainment mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and countless other supporting players.

We meet Sonny Weaver, Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns, one of the oldest NFL teams, which has been plagued with a long stretch of disappointing seasons in the past few decades. As played by Costner, Weaver feels put upon by his life. He was forced to fire his own father as the team’s longtime head coach recently and his father has just passed away as the story begins. It all takes place on draft day as the team tries to finalize its first draft pick decision and work some deals to better position themselves to grab the highest draft pick they can.

I don’t know if Scott Rothman and Ravij Joseph were unaware about how the Seattle Seahawks were coming on in the league when they wrote the screenplay, or if Seattle really has such good draft picks at this point in time, but Weaver makes a deal with the Hawks’ GM for the number one pick, which everyone assumes will be the superstar quarterback Bo Callahan. This doesn’t sit well with Weaver’s new head coach Penn (Leary), who feels their current QB is perfect for his system. It also discourages a rookie linebacker, Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), who is depending on Weaver’s confidence in his ability to go early in the first round rather than later, which will greatly affect his pay grade. Penn wants the son of a former Cleveland player to be the new star running back of the team. Very little really seems to be in the hands of Weaver, who even made the Seattle trade under pressure from the team’s owner (Langella).

Weaver has his own personal problems as well. His girlfriend (Garner) has just informed him that he’s about to become a father. Their romance is a secret due to the fact that she is also the team’s accountant responsible for maintaining the salary cap. His mother (Burstyn) is also pressuring him to hold a memorial for his father. Why she would do this on draft day could only be to create more dilemmas for our hero.

While these subplots work to bring some levity into the proceedings and add some depth to Weaver’s character, they are the sideshows. The main attraction is the business of football, and it is more fascinating than it would seem. The backroom dealings are intricate and tricky. Think “Moneyball” except this all happens in the 20 hours or so before the draft begins. The behind the scenes trading involve a great deal of smaller market teams trying to get in on the dealing, allowing Reitman’s second unit directors to bring us beautiful introductory shots of such cities across the country as Houston, Texas, Kansas City, Missouri, Buffalo, New York, Cincinnati, Ohio, Seattle, Washington, and of course, Cleveland, Ohio.

The fact that the NFL has thrown their full support behind this movie only helps it. There’s nothing worse that watching a movie about professional football and having to endure team names like the Dallas Knights and the Chicago Rhinos and team colors that a high school squad wouldn’t be caught dead in. Many of the larger markets like the New York, Florida and California teams are conspicuously absent from the proceedings, but I suppose the more exciting draft day trading really happens among these smaller markets anyway.

Much of the dialogue is spoken over telephone calls. Reitman uses the old filmmaking technique of the split screen to make these scenes more dynamic and allow for the semblance of more character interaction. He modernizes the storytelling device by allowing the split screens to overlap and even show the characters crossing back and forth across each other, swapping from one end of the screen to the other at times. This allows characters who are thousands of miles apart to interact as if they’re in the same room.

“Draft Day” feels like a classic sports flick even though there is no actual football played in it. All the action takes place in the off-season, so we only get a few bits of game reel footage to really see the game. The fans are represented as protesting the management at their corporate offices decked out in full game day support apparel. I don’t know if that is an actual phenomenon or not—I’m not that brainwashed—but it helps to enforce that sports flick atmosphere. 

Will this tactic work for those unbrainwashed looking for a good sports romance? I think so. There is genuine tension built up from the last minute trades and the filmmakers never tip their hat as to how it will all play out. It’s that classic sports set up. Will the underdog win out the night? Man, I wish the NFL backed a Hollywood style movie every off-season.

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