TROUBLE CITY

Movie Curiosities: Draft Day

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To make this clear, I am not a football guy. That's a huge reason why I took so long getting to this movie. See, I live in Portland. We don't have major league football here, unless you count the Seahawks (and really, why would you?). However, we do have major league basketball. Up until the Timbers entered the MLS in 2009, the Portland Trail Blazers were pretty much the only game in town. And what an awful game it's been. Let me take you back to June 5th of 2000. The Portland Trail Blazers were facing their eternal rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, in Game 7 of the Western Conference championships. Going into the fourth quarter, the Blazers were up by fifteen points. In the space of only ten minutes, the Lakers came back to win the game by a five-point margin. It was the biggest fourth-quarter Game 7 comeback in history. Over thirteen years later, and the Blazers still haven't recovered. No matter how many players, coaches, and executives got swapped in and out, the team just kept on losing and frustration among the fans kept simmering.

Then the 2007 NBA draft lottery happened, and we got first pick. All of Portland was given a new reason to hope, now that we had first dibs on the next great players of tomorrow. Greg Oden of Ohio State was the popular choice for first pick, so of course he's who we went with. Then Oden missed the entire 2007-2008 season because of a knee injury he got in the pre-season. But we didn't care -- Oden was going to come back next year, and he was going to be awesome. Oden did indeed come back in the 2008-2009 season... and left his debut game after a foot injury. He got another knee injury in early 2009 and was out for the rest of the season. So Oden went in for surgery, which meant he had to skip the entire next season as well. By 2012, Portlanders had finally run out of optimism and dumped him. Our golden boy never got to finish a single season.

(Side note: Back in 1984, Portland had the chance to draft Michael Jordan himself. Instead, we went with Sam Bowie, another player so prone to injuries that he had to withdraw from hundreds of games. So Portland can now lay claim to the two worst draft picks in the history of the NBA.)

My point is this: Even though I don't understand football, I understood Draft Day all too well. When that movie showed Cleveland as a city of devoted fans that resolutely stood by its sports team through so many crushing disappointments, I knew exactly how they felt. I wasn't even slightly bored watching so many execs and managers scrutinize the potential draft picks for the slightest weakness, because I was amply familiar with just how badly a draft pick could go.

So to get this out of the way, you don't have to be a football fan to enjoy this movie. It helps -- sweet soul of Vince Lombardi, does it help -- but it's not necessary. All you really need is at least a passing familiarity with how and why people can get so passionate about sports. If you can understand why millions of dollars, dozens of jobs, and the morale of an entire city can be made or broken in an instant, then you'll find something to like here.

The film takes place on the day of the NFL draft. It tells the story of Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns, played by Kevin Costner. As if draft day wasn't stressful enough for a man in Sonny's position, he's given a last-minute and very costly deal to take the number one draft pick. That may sound all well and good on the surface, especially for a team as victory-starved as the Browns. However, this last-minute change means that the entire draft day strategy has to be completely revised. The Browns now have their shot at drafting the number one pick in the country, and they've got eight hours to decide whether that's a deal worth taking.

But of course, that's not the only thing Sonny has to worry about.

See, Sonny Weaver Sr. was a legend among the Browns and their fans. He served as the coach for many years until he got fired by the general manager, who -- you may remember -- also happened to be his son. There are contradictory reports about what exactly happened, but it's clear that Sonny Jr. feels a lot of guilt about it. And to make him feel even guiltier, Sonny Sr. passed away only a week before the film begins. So now Sonny has to deal with his work problems and his family problems at the exact same time. And even that isn't enough.

It's an open secret that while all this family drama has been going on, Sonny has been seeing a younger woman. The girlfriend in question is Ali, played by Jennifer Garner. She also happens to be a lawyer working for the Cleveland Browns.

To recap, Sonny has to juggle the future of the Cleveland Browns (with all the money, jobs, and town morale that accompanies the team, to say nothing of his own job), with honoring the legacy of his father, assisting his family in their time of mourning, and banging a coworker on the side. Oh, and the coworker is newly pregnant with his child. Did I forget to mention that part?

At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was just some dime-a-dozen mediocrity. And it easily could have been, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. But luckily for everyone involved, it would be a gross understatement to call Ivan Reitman a seasoned veteran. Only a director with Reitman's CV could have blended comedy, drama, and romance into a single streamlined whole the way he does here. Equally important, Reitman is savvy enough to balance the movie's football aspect. There's enough stock clips and lip service to keep pigskin fans happy, and enough exposition to keep non-fans informed, but not so much of either that non-fans would be driven away. Very skillfully done.

Moreover, Reitman was smart enough to realize that the film needs a constant sense of forward momentum. That isn't easy to convey when so much of the film revolves around people making phone calls. To remedy this problem, Reitman uses some very clever split-screen effects that keep the dividing line moving every which way. The images on the screen are always moving, even if the characters aren't. Plus, the shifting frames provide some opportunities to show flashbacks and locations while the characters are talking, which makes for a very effective use of time.

Unfortunately, Reitman goes a step too far and often has the characters walk into each other's frame. They don't interact with each other directly like some bad Looney Tunes joke, the characters just overlap frames at times. I get what Reitman was going for -- showing the characters talk with each other like they're in the same room, even though they're hundreds of miles apart -- but the gimmick doesn't quite work in execution. Still, I can't blame Reitman for trying something creative, and it's not harmful enough that I'm willing to hold it against the film too badly.

The important thing is that the narrative keeps moving forward at all times. Even when the characters slow down to take a breather, we're always kept aware of the ticking clock. And the film's other greatest strength is a huge part of that.

I've never been a fan of Kevin Costner, but I've been very impressed with his career moves over the past couple years. After Waterworld and The Postman, Costner had been reduced to a punchline. Then in rapid succession, he did Man of SteelJack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and Three Days to Kill. Sure, those films may not have entirely panned out for him, but that's not the point. The point is that somehow, it seems like Costner just woke up one day and decided that he was done being treated like a has-been. He's acting like he's got something to prove now. I'm still not completely sold on him, but I can't deny that his recent show of effort is quite fascinating to watch.

Not only is Costner out to prove himself all over again, but he's fresh out of fucks to give about what anyone thinks. It's a combination that works surprisingly well for his character here. Sonny goes through the whole film getting jerked around by various agendas and dealing with different people trying to screw him over, and Costner plays it all with a very calm mask over building impatience and anger. Sonny is calm enough to provide an air of authority, but he shows just enough desperation and confusion to sell the stakes and keep us emotionally invested in the protagonist. Moreover, there's a clear sense that Sonny is conflicted between his need to move quickly and his need to slow down and go over his options. But when the time finally comes to get on the phone and make some deals, his energy and charisma are overwhelming. This gets back to my earlier point -- Costner brings so much energy to the role that he plays a huge part in keeping the plot moving forward.

Then we have Jennifer Garner. Based on what I've seen of Garner's work so far (principally DaredevilJuno, and Dallas Buyers Club), I've concluded that Garner is only as good as her director. Much like Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, Garner is effectively worthless unless she has a director who knows how to use her. Luckily, Reitman knows how to use her.

Jennifer Garner is on fire in this movie, portraying a woman every bit as capable and witty as her male peers. Ali serves a vital purpose as Sonny's emotional release valve, partly because he loves and trusts her so much, and partly because she's strong and smart enough to help him carry so many burdens. Granted, the chemistry between them isn't always perfect, but it's an awkward office romance, so whatever. The point is that Garner does a fantastic job as the female lead, admirably supporting the drama while telling some great jokes along the way.

The supporting cast in general is quite strong. Denis Leary plays a smartass like only he can, and Ellen Burstyn does a fine job playing Sonny's mother. We've also got some memorable turns from Sam Elliot, Chi McBride, Sean Combs (of all people), and Frank Langella, among others. However, the cast does have a glaring weak point.

The story primarily concerns four football players. First and foremost is Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), the first choice pick that everyone's after. We've also got Arian Foster as Ray Jennings, a draft candidate who wants to be a Brown like his dad. Next up is Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), another potential draft pick who wants to come work for the Brown's. Then there's Brian Drew (an unrecognizable Tom Welling), an established quarterback for the Browns who's fighting off rumors of weak knees.

Each of these actors gets maybe one or two scenes apiece and their characters are terribly underdeveloped. Through the vast majority of the plot, we're watching characters look at Callahan through a microscope, hearing rumors and speculation about him from other characters. Yet Callahan himself is barely in this picture and we learn hardly anything about him firsthand.

Conversely, Vontae Mack gets the short end of a stick that was already far too short in the first place. The other players all have their pros and cons, but I couldn't remember a single one of either where Vontae was concerned. Even worse, Vontae gives Sonny a lead on Callahan, and our protagonist completely forgets about it until more than half an hour of screen time later. That's a character getting shafted if ever I saw it.

Keep in mind that the whole movie is building up to the draft. Ultimately, this story is about what happens to these players. So naturally, when draft day comes and we find out which players go where, it's understandably played as a huge deal. But it doesn't land with the proper impact because we've spent so little time with these characters, and that's a significant problem.

Ultimately, I have no problem giving Draft Day a pass. Though it certainly helps to be a football fan, the thematic emphasis on families and legacies will provide enough for laypeople to hold onto. It also helps that the film is very slickly produced, with great pacing and solid acting. If nothing else, the film is proof positive that Ivan Reitman and Kevin Costner have still got it.

The film isn't a masterpiece, and it didn't have me rolling in the aisles, but it was still a sweet and pleasant way to pass two hours. It's not a great film, but it is a good one. I'd say that's worth a second-run ticket at least.

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