Counting out Kevin Costner in a sports movie is a sucker’s bet. Like Robert De Niro clad in garish mafioso sharkskin or Tom Hanks draped in the red-white-and-blue bunting of an all-American hero, the genre seems to fit the actor like a bespoke suit. Whether he’s playing the world-weary sage of the minors in Bull Durham, the cornfield nostalgist of Field of Dreams, or the crash-and-burn underdog in Tin Cup, Costner always seems most at home and believable when he’s playing aging jocks with a cocky, screw-it-all air of defiance. It’s when the rascally twinkle in his eye twinkles the brightest. And he’s easily the best thing about Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day.
From the moment most of us first stepped onto the schoolyard as kids, the world seemed to be divided into two distinct tribes: those who were good at sports and those who were good at math. For a long time, that chasm seemed both yawning and unbridgeable. At least until two things happened: the rise of fantasy sports, where the out-of-shape fan gets a chance to call the shots, and the release of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball in 2011. Suddenly, it was clear for the world to see that behind every group of freakishly gifted athletes was an equally freakish and gifted group of number crunchers with their own nerdy brand of competitive swagger.
Draft Day is Moneyball Lite. And if that sounds like a slight, it’s not intended as one. Reitman’s film is a tightly paced tick-tock procedural set on the morning of the annual NFL Draft. It chronicles the minute-by-minute war room decisions, gamesmanship, and horse-trading that go into a pro football team getting its mitts on the next Super Bowl-winning thoroughbred like Tom Brady or the next dream-shattering bust like Ryan Leaf (Ryan who? Exactly!). Never mind that Brady was the 199th pick in the draft and Leaf the second; there’s an underlying science to the process. A process that can help the odds in what’s essentially still a multimillion-dollar crapshoot.
Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr. is the man holding the dice in this game. As the general manager of the beleaguered Cleveland Browns, he’s a man who, over the course of the next 12 hours, will either become a hero or a scapegoat to the city’s rabidly loyal, lunch-pail fanbase, depending on which college prospect he selects. The pressure is overwhelming.
Reitman, along with writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, stacks the deck with an improbable number of outside personal forces closing in on Sonny: there’s the legacy of his late front-office legend father; an imperious team owner (Frank Langella); a hot-headed new coach (Denis Leary) who wants a say in the decision; and a clandestine romance with the team’s salary-cap expert (Jennifer Garner) who also just happens to be pregnant. That’s a lot of melodramatic balls to keep in the air — probably one too many — but Costner’s greatest strength as an actor is making us feel the accumulated weight crushing down on his character. He shows us Sonny’s desperation without ever letting him lose his cool. At 59, Costner is at least a decade past playing the arrogant young maverick. And thankfully, he goes in a different direction here, bringing an interesting sense of defeat and layers of self-doubt to Sonny. You get the feeling that this is the character’s last chance to pull off a final-second Hail Mary pass. Will he trade up in the draft order to take the obvious number one pick, a stud quarterback played by Josh Pence? Or will he go with the less sexy longshot no one but him believes in (Chadwick Boseman, nicely channeling Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire)?
What makes Draft Day more rousing and interesting than you’d expect is the subtext that Sonny’s decision is ultimately beside the point. Yes, he kicks the tires on all of these promising players, assessing their character. But the real character being tested is his own ? his ability to drown out all of the white noise and listen to his own gambler’s instincts. Reitman’s film isn’t as original or as ambitious as Moneyball was in its attempt to expose the arcane process of professional sports. It’s a much more conventional and predictable film. But thanks to Costner’s sly, dry-aged charisma, it marches down the field and scores. B