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As a chronicle of the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes of pro-football recruitment (which may not even be the right terminology), Draft Day may be the “sportsiest” movie ever made. But even if the first note I took as the film started was “Why does this matter?” director Ivan Reitman does a remarkable job of making this incredibly specific subject matter not only comprehensible, but almost universal, as he chronicles the quandary one man faces in trying to balance his own desires and ambitions with the expectations of the many and the demands of those whose lives his decisions will affect.
An effective, smart chess match executed with precision and suspense, Draft Day is Reitman’s best film in many years, showcasing the filmmaker’s expert grasp of technique and tone as he turns a world of statistics and politics into a character study and ensemble dramedy.
Kevin Costner (Jack Ryan) plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager for the Cleveland Browns. On the morning of the annual players draft, he’s at a crossroads: just weeks after his father, the team’s coach, passed away, he’s faced with signing (or re-signing) the players who might take them to the Super Bowl, even as he contemplates the potential of his own legacy. But when the manager of another team offers him the opportunity to recruit star quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), virtually securing their position as contenders, he faces an offer he cannot refuse.
Agreeing to the deal, Weaver faces objections of the Brown’s coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary), even as the team’s fans rush to celebrate the decision. But after reviewing the promise of a hungry prospect named Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), and the skill of the team’s current quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), he begins to have second thoughts. With the world watching and the legacy of his father hanging heavy over him, Weaver is uncertain what to do – satisfy the demands of the fans, his colleagues, and the team’s owner (Frank Langella), or let the team’s fate ride on choices that promise the less obvious triumph of fulfilling his own ambitions.
There’s something oddly prescient about this film for both Reitman and Costner, talented Hollywood mainstays who are undoubtedly facing the question of whether they should kowtow to the demands of the youth market they’ve long since outgrown, or stick by their principles and hope that audiences go along for the ride. Thankfully, Draft Day is expertly enough made that audiences – or let’s maybe just say, grown ups – will experience plenty of excitement as Weaver’s maneuvering begins to wreak havoc on the people, and community, around him.
Reitman unpacks Weaver’s journey with a precision and skill that, quite frankly, few of his younger counterparts could make look quite so easy. As Sonny brokers each deal and struggles to evaluate each new challenge, Reitman neither makes it exceptionally difficult to make his choice, nor telegraphs its consequences, and then filters in the complications of demands made by people whose immediate priority is not football, but themselves. Meanwhile, as Sonny’s “worst kept secret” girlfriend Ali, Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) infiltrates his confidence without undermining it, offering sage advice that is as unjudgmental as it is enlightening, and adding interesting layers to his decision-making process.
In a role which effectively utilizes his gravitas while allowing him to remain “young” on screen, Costner is pretty terrific as Sonny, a man who knows himself well enough to know he has trouble communicating – and to acknowledge it – but isn’t always capable of doing anything about it. The way the typically no-nonsense actor deals with the character’s alternate candor and reticence feels fully authentic, even when he’s confronted with circumstances that seem conspicuously cinematic, and the film marks his best and most sophisticated work in years.
At the same time, the movie throws a lot of cartoonish obstacles Sonny’s way, and populates his world with characters, such as “Rick the Intern” (Griffin Newman), whose purpose isn’t entirely clear, but feels distracting. But Reitman, again, manages to juggle these characters and this complicated story so well that its shortcomings feel, well less important than they might in the hands of someone less assured or experienced behind the camera.
In which case, Draft Day is first and foremost a movie for people who truly care about the ins and outs of its subject, but it ultimately has a lot to say about the dynamic between doing what you have to, and what you want to, as you’re reaching an age when simply having that choice still feels like a luxury. And whether you understand or eventually care about who trades what to which team for what purpose, Reitman at the very least gives you a reason to keep watching.
Draft Day is in theaters now.