by Chris Corbellini
While we wait for some foolish soul to tackle a movie about Super Bowl Sunday that doesn’t involve a low-hanging blimp, here’s the not-quite-the next-best thing: a film about football with virtually no football in it, the Kevin Costner flick “Draft Day.”
It should come as no surprise that the NFL wants the lot of us with discretionary income (Ed Note: People have discretionary income?) thinking about football year-round, and a good way to market the sport that way is to build up its annual Draft as the second biggest event of its calendar. What once was an April weekend of chain-smoking, phone calls and Pete Rozelle’s announcements in what looked like a 1970s basement is now a prime-time broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in May, and before the draft prospects even play a single down in the league they are introduced on the red carpet as if hosting Saturday Night Live.
“Draft Day” is the realization of that marketing mission. Here’s a non-threatening, Hollywood treatment about dreams being realized against the backdrop of the game (even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has a cameo). The league should be most pleased with the final cut, and the story’s within-reason authenticity. The rest of us will watch amiable, disposable entertainment that skims the skim of the surface of what could have been a terrific football film (Ed Note: In short, this film is the Dallas Cowboys of movies?)
Full-disclosure here: I work on and off with the NFL’s offices in New York, Mt. Laurel, N.J., and Los Angeles. My favorite moment of the picture occurred when I saw a colleague get his own line of script in the third act. That happens when you put in some unofficial work for a production (usually gratis), and knowing that this guy wants his name in lights anyway, I chuckled when I saw him involved. Secondly, a show I’ve helped put together about draft prospects for the league’s network is in the final stages of production. Please consider all of that when I write the following … I love the NFL Draft itself, for what it was and what it is now, for a reason somehow not shown in the movie.
There have been some easy comparisons between “Draft Day” and “Moneyball.” I see that and raise you the following: Draft Day is a 90-minute football version of the Ricardo Rincon trade scene in Moneyball. Remember, earlier in the movie, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) explains his backstory to assistant Jonah Hill by saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “You’ve got the Yale degree and a great apprenticeship here. You can bail at anytime. I’m 44 and this is it. Do you believe in this thing or not?”
It pays off later, as the duo work the phones to make the Rincon trade. It’s fabulous, it shows the smarts behind the brawn of the game, there are stakes involved, and it might have happened nearly verbatim. So, a Hollywood creative might think: That was a great scene, and meaty acting. You know what, football is enormously popular now. Do crafty deals like that happen in football? Oh yeah they do, on draft day.
Sub out Billy Beane for Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), the Cleveland Browns general manger who appears headed for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day: his girlfriend, the team’s salary capologist, Ali (Jennifer Garner), informs him that she’s pregnant; his disapproving mother demands that they sprinkle his late father’s ashes on the practice field; his coach (Denis Leary) comes at him like a two-headed hydra of James Woods and Barry Switzer. Toss in a ticked-off incumbent quarterback and an owner demanding he make a splash to appease their relentlessly tortured Browns fan base. It’s a grocery list of nightmares for an NFL GM, or someone in the audience who has ever been a middle manager in the audience.
So Costner makes his move early, becoming the other guy on the line with a Beane-like wheeler-dealer, giving up his future for the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 1 overall selection. (I thought this was fortuitous timing for the entire production, given the nationwide exposure of the Seahawks as Super Bowl champs. Of course, that doesn’t explain why Seattle had the top pick). From there, Costner gets his groove back and becomes The Man With The Plan, and it all ends well for our hero, some of the college players he targeted all along, the family and the franchise.
Sounds reasonable for a lukewarm April release, right (Ed Note: matches the weather)? Certainly timely, right? Maybe, but it really missed out on capturing the pure joy involved in being selected. If you are producing a sports movie with no sports action involved, and phone calls drive the drama, shouldn’t there be a climactic moment where a drafted player gets the call that will change his life? It doesn’t have to be showy, either. Think of the five most meaningful phone calls you’ve ever had. The map of your entire world is being redrawn, and it can be a quiet thing. They failed to capture that aspect of it.
On that note, one final personal NFL story: I worked on a production that wired Adrian Peterson for sound while he was waiting for the call in the NFL Draft’s green room. His family, seated at a table just like in this film, had suffered their share of head-shaking hardships, from the incarceration of his father, to the death of a brother (who was struck by a drunk driver right in front of Peterson’s eyes). A beat after the Minnesota Vikings called with the life-altering news, Peterson whispered to his mother, “It’s happening, mom.”
The powerful runner, now an All-Pro, nearly trembled as he waited for the official announcement. “Draft Day” didn’t capture that, or try to, not even with a game, giddy Chadwick Boseman (who capably played Jackie Robinson a year earlier, and here portrays a linebacker who unfortunately reminded me of New York Jets bust Vernon Gholston) celebrating with family after his name was called. The film doesn’t focus on the prospects behind a superficial scene or two, so their draft moments pass without much weight.
Which leaves us with Crash Davis/Ray Kinsella/Roy McAvoy to carry the picture. Costner had two standout moments, one involving a yellow post-it note, and the line about “the great ones find a way to slow it down.” Paul Newman once said “I can make a good script great.” It was his gift, and because of all our years together with Costner, he can do it too in one genre – sports. Telling James Earl Jones that the voice at Fenway Park said “The man’s done enough, leave him alone,” in “Field of Dreams“, or dancing with Annie Savoy, or quietly absorbing his outright release from the Durham Bulls in a pool hall in “Bull Durham”.
In this case, Costner did his best with a script that tried to serve both the die-hards (look, that’s the real NFL green room!) and general movie going public (look, Costner and Garner are having an in-office romance in a closet!). There is another great sports movie in him, just like there was another great movie for a white-haired Newman about a small-town fix-it man called “Nobody’s Fool.” (Ed Note: That’s in my “In Bruges Hall of Fame”, films that you REALLY need to see). “Draft Day” was not it. The framing is all wrong. In the classic “Bull Durham,” Savoy’s velvety voice tells the story about Costner’s minor league club and her belief in the Church of Baseball. This go-around, Costner’s narrator was ESPN’s bombastic Chris Berman, indirectly expounding on what makes the NFL Draft so easy to market. I preferred Annie.