' ' Cinema Romantico: Draft Day

Monday, May 05, 2014

Draft Day

When a film literally opens with the notoriously halting, bombastic voice of ESPN anchorman Chris Berman intoning about the “National Football League” as if its importance rivals a United Nations Peace Summit, as “Draft Day” does, well, the film could go one of two ways. It could be exactly what everyone expects, a conservative, brand beating bit of NFL agitprop. Or it could be a prickly satire, using the Berman voice to underscore the NFL’s bloated sense of self-importance, and, in turn, to show how the NFL draft itself is really nothing much more than a stock board on Wall Street, buying, selling and trading commodities. Alas, if Roger Goodell, the actual NFL commissioner, is featured in the film, and he is, the second option goes out the window.

“Draft Day” is directed by Ivan Reitman at his most middle-of-the-road, aside from bouts of split-screen emitting whiffs of a desperate uncle conversing with his nephew about phone apps, and no doubt to elicit the league’s cooperation and gain access to archival footage, he was forced to pull every possible punch. Admittedly, the screenplay, not so much hammy (which would have been refreshing) as conspicuously colorless, and perhaps a bit too much of inside baseball for those who don't know football, does him few favors, lacking in entertaining byplay and riveting drama. If the players in the draft are mere chess pieces, and despite their beating hearts and outrageous salaries, they are, so too are the characters of “Draft Day." What could have been caustically relevant is instead a narrative yawn. Its biggest plot development has to do with a quarterback’s birthday party and its attendees. To quote Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler......really?

Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) is General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. His team’s down the dumper, fans want him fired, his Dad – the one-time Browns coach – died six days earlier, he just learned his co-worker lady friend (Jennifer Garner, comporting herself with ten-tons of grace amidst this ode to masculinity even if she and Costner have virtually no chemistry) is pregnant, it’s Draft Day, and the ticking clock on screen shows it is but 12 hours until he makes his all-or-nothing pick. (“Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time,” says Robert McKee.) Ordered by team owner (Frank Langella) to make a “splash”, as opposed to merely choosing the player that best fits the team’s needs, Sonny makes a spectacularly ill-advised trade for the exalted number one pick. Now they can enlist the services of vaunted quarterback Bo Callahan. Unless Bo isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. Or unless wily Sonny has another trick up his dress shirt sleeve.

The pregnancy, of course, is meant to underscore the fresh start this precious draft pick can provide, a metaphor which feels both like an afterthought and an insult, though I don’t doubt most GM’s in the National Football League genuinely believe draft picks are more vital than newborn babies. Which would have been a bold idea for “Draft Day” to explore but then “Draft Day” believes in truth, justice and the Goodell Way. The Father’s death is meant to highlight Sonny Jr.’s come-to-Jesus moment, making him ask “who am I really?” and “for what do I really stand?” The Father’s death also, however, negates the obvious opportunity to have him stand stoically on the football field against the backdrop of a gray spring sky. So instead it serves that shot with the Mother right after she has spread the Father’s ashes. It’s NFL Films with Ellen Burstyn. Linda Blair is unaccounted for and, dammit, we really needed her in this one, vomiting all over the gridiron piety.

Costner is solid in the lead role, nicely playing against the archetype of a hard-charging, over-stressed workaholic, and instead evincing a restrained world-weariness, a man who maybe does not have the temperament for such a position. Naturally when the draft itself arrives, he begins making moves; and while the moves are overtly calculated in screenwriting terms, Costner is believable, acting not on foregone knowledge but out of wildcard desperation. He’s also ultimately acting out of the goodness of his heart, sort of, and this is where “Draft Day” truly runs aground. Not unlike the NFL’s Crunch Course and Concussion Problem, the film wants it both ways. It wants the draft pick to double as an ethical stand, but instantly undercuts it with power-hungry finagling. It’s terribly ironic, but (Berman voice!) the National Football League doesn’t do irony.

Early in the film, on the TV, over the shoulder of a character, we hear the real-life Jon Gruden make mention of a potential draftee who has been arrested for assault and battery. These sorts of real-world problems plague the NFL at every turn. Of course, in the film, the character merely made a mistake. “That's not who he is,” says Gruden in a moment of scarily accurate inadvertent hilarity, and which points to the overall problem of “Draft Day”. Everyone is either good or misunderstood (which, of course, means they’re still good). All the real-world issues are covered up. The Draft Room is just another Potemkin Village.

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