“Draft Day” is a “ticking clock” thriller built around the NFL draft, a movie that counts down to the fateful decision that one embattled general manager (Kevin Costner) makes with his team’s first-round pick.
It’s a reasonably interesting — to NFL fans, anyway — peek behind the curtains at the wheeling, dealing and over-thinking that goes on as teams and managers and coaches try to avoid looking as if they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re nagged into making hasty or ill-advised decisions by agents and the players they represent, and showboating owners who like to “make a splash,” get their faces on ESPN and impress the hometown folks with their football acumen.
The GMs have their own slang and their own swagger, which makes this a natural for Costner, for decades the movies’ go-to guy for jock roles.
But for the casual fan and the casual filmgoer, it can be a bit of a melodramatic bore. This ticking-clock thriller doesn’t really get going until the teams are truly “on the clock.”
Costner is Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager for the hapless Cleveland Browns. They have an antsy owner (Frank Langella) and a new, preening coach (Denis Leary) who likes to flash his Super Bowl ring under everybody’s nose. Will Frank pick a cocky, pushy defensive back (Chadwick Boseman of “42”) or trade up to land the Heisman Trophy winner (Josh Pence)?
What’s fascinating in these wheeling-and-dealing early scenes is the way gossip gets started, the way the veteran GMs play each other and read each other. Rumors about the Heisman winner bubble to the surface.
Sports talk radio covers this sort of “How much does he want to play?” stuff from a speculative point of view. “Draft Day” sets out to show how a Johnny Manziel or Jadaveon Clowney’s stock rises and falls in the hours leading up to their big payday. “You only get drafted once,” Sonny tells his prospects. Better enjoy it.
Sonny gathers intel from his staff and steels himself to make a decision he knows the owner will not like. Then more gossip comes in, and he’s on the fence, which gets the coach all worked up. Everybody is playing the angles against everybody else.
What doesn’t work is the added melodrama in all this. Sonny’s dad used to be the Browns’ coach. His dad just died. His mom (Ellen Burstyn) won’t get off his back.
And his not-that-secret inter-office romance (Jennifer Garner) just gave him some news.
“Draft Day” is an NFL- and ESPN-sanctioned dramedy designed to cash in on and maybe goose interest in the draft, which TV and the league have turned into a spring spectacle. It doesn’t have a lot of rough edges to it, nothing unflattering to the league or the cable company in its back pocket, which only serves to remind us how this sport swallowed American sporting culture whole.
Costner and Garner are good and Langella properly menacing, but Leary has lost his fastball and seems to be holding something back in his quarrel scenes with Costner.
Filling the screen with character players ranging from Chi McBride (a rival owner) to assorted NFL Network and ESPN (past and present) stars, shifting from city to city, stadium to stadium as the phone calls zip back and forth doesn’t really ratchet up suspense or entertainment value.
But for the fans, it’s a competent eye-opener, a movie that makes you understand Jets quarterback Geno Smith’s fury at falling out of the first round and the sort of whispering campaigns that this closed culture of front-office folks mount to let them win in May, even if they don’t win in the fall.