Any good film manages to immerse its audience in the world of its characters, drawing viewers in to share the lives, and dilemmas of the people on screen. But the mark of a great film comes when it can lure the interest of an audience that initially doesn’t even care about the subject matter.
The new movie “Draft Day” flirts with greatness by doing just that. Following a nerve-wracking 13 hours in the life of Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns football team, as he has to decide which players to pick on the titular day while also contending with the personal crisis of his secret lover - team budget director revealing that she’s pregnant and not wanting to be a secret anymore.
Add in the fact that Weaver’s father just died a week ago and that Browns fans hate Sonny Jr. for having fired his dad from being the team’s head coach a couple years before, and you’ve got one nerve-wracking day ahead of him. After all, he has just traded away three future first-round picks in exchange for getting the top pick in the draft today.
It’s a decision that can affect the direction and quality of his team in both immediate and long-term fashions, and adding to his angst is the fact that something seems just a little bit “off” with the player that everyone’s expecting him to pounce upon first. With everyone from his coaches to his lover to his mom, sports radio hosts and thousands of fans coming down on him at once, Sonny has to think faster than he ever has and draw on reserves of cleverness and strength that he barely knows he has.
“Draft Day” is packed with tense human drama from start to finish, and has an ace cast bringing its well-drawn characters to vibrant life. Everyone in it has a greater depth than viewers will at first realize, revealing a good or a bad side that will continually surprise while inspiring admiration from fans of smart writing and acting.
But where its stellar script really shines is in bringing the world of the NFL draft day to life. As the movie’s smart use of real-life ESPN sportscasters explains in the opening moments, the draft is one of the most dramatic days in all of American sports, during which just 224 college players out of the thousands nationwide will get a chance to be picked by one of the 32 NFL teams in a series of seven rounds.
I’m personally not a sports buff, but rather the kind of guy who shows up at a Super Bowl party for the snacks and commercials. When I first heard the title “Draft Day,” I thought this was a war movie. Yet even so, the debut screenplay by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman immediately explained the draft, set up the stakes and baited the hook perfectly for me to be on the edge of my seat throughout the movie’s riveting and brilliantly constructed final minutes.
The other big surprise here is director Ivan Reitman, who made his name with broad-comedy classics like “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Twins” before releasing a miserable stream of box office losers over the past 15 years. Perhaps he drew inspiration from his son Jason, whose own recent directorial efforts such as “Juno” and “Up in the Air” have set new standards for the modern character-driven dramedy, but Ivan has clearly upped his game here tremendously and reinvented himself as an expert director of drama and even suspense.
Buoyed by the classic charms of Costner, “Draft Day” operates with a smooth level of class that carries over to how it handles its moral content. There are no bed scenes in the movie, with Sonny’s affair only discussed by Costner and Gardner, although some of the coaches make some crude sexual jokes in one scene that will be forgotten within seconds. There is one use of the F word and about 20 total uses of either milder foul language or God’s name in vain in various forms, but overall this is a first-round pick when deciding to see a movie this weekend.