By Joan Ellis
Along about August, you will be grateful for a movie like “Draft Day.”
Consider some summer titles that are about to come our way on a wave of publicity that tells us how lucky we are to receive such gifts: “Godzilla,” “Maleficent,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
But back to “Draft Day.” Even if the football culture bores you – possibly even to extinction – this story moves at a fast clip, thanks to director Ivan Reitman’s firm hand. On the NFL Draft Day in Radio City, 224 young men will see their lives changed in front of a gathering of the men who run professional football. A countdown clock in the lower corner of the screen ticks off the hours that remain until the commissioner announces the coveted draft picks.
The real drama unfolds in team headquarters across the country where coaches, managers and owners engage in the often ugly politics of the draft. Kevin Costner, who always seems thoroughly comfortable in a sports film, plays Sonny Weaver Jr., newly appointed to succeed his father as coach of the Cleveland Browns. He is quietly convincing as he navigates the politics of the Browns hierarchy while growing into his new role as coach.
From Cleveland to Seattle to Buffalo to Kansas City, the weapon of choice for the managers is the cellphone and throughout the day, they bargain for first, second, and third choice draft picks. If this sounds dull, it isn’t. Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner see to that. They are both authentic and engaging in their roles. Even their romance is rooted in football. Instead of being just the pretty woman in the office, Garner’s Ali grew up loving the sport and absorbing its strategies and statistics to become the entirely believable, wise presence in the Browns’ headquarters. Garner is terrific here.
Can all this really hold our attention? You bet. The maneuverings of the trades unfold on split screens over smartphones and are shot through with good acting and a strong undercurrent of Coach Weaver’s personal value system.
In the best part of the film, Weaver uses game films to show his colleagues and the audience the character strengths and weaknesses of the players that will determine his choices. In those choices he receives strong, but quiet guidance from Garner’s Ali. Together they are the moral center of the movie.
Touches of sentimentality and melodrama are wrapped in unexpected suspense that holds until the final scene. Frank Langella is intimidating as the powerful owner. Credit Sam Elliot, Ellen Burstyn, Josh Pence and a host of football figures who play themselves and lend authenticity to the story. They create an intriguing clash of personal values that holds our interest while the inter-city bickering races against that clock. The cast offers fine support to Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner who in turn lift this one a notch above most sports movies.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.
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