After spending much of his career being likened to “High Noon” star Gary Cooper, Kevin Costner gets a countdown-clock movie to call his very own in “Draft Day.” Although director Ivan Reitman’s sports dramedy trades the streets of the Wild West for the equally rambunctious turf of pro football, and a duel in the center of town for one in the strategy room of the Cleveland Browns, the underlying situation is the same: A weary but fundamentally decent man must decide whether to stand his ideological ground or fall into line with the cowardly herd. It’s a role that fits the aging Costner to a tee in what’s easily the savviest sports movie since “Moneyball” — though you’d scarcely guess it from Summit’s AARP-friendly marketing campaign and decision to hide the film from critics until the 11th hour. Opening in the mighty wake of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and opposite family tentpole “Rio 2,” the pic should manage to pass the wan $30 million domestic gross of Costner’s recent “3 Days to Kill,” but looks to score most of its points in the home-viewing arena.
Costner and sports have always made good bedfellows, and the actor is indeed at his most Cooper-esque as Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. — especially the slightly anxious, weathered Cooper of the post-“High Noon” years, whose crusader’s virtue seemed dulled by life and its incessant compromises. Fittingly, Weaver is a man in a constant state of negotiating, his draft picks in some ways being the least of his worries. His girlfriend (Jennifer Garner), who also happens to be the team’s salary-cap manager, has just announced that she’s pregnant; his high-strung mother (Ellen Burstyn) can’t help making him feel inferior to his late father, a legendary Browns head coach (whom Junior fired at Mom’s request); and, after a 6-10 season, the team’s brass-tacks owner (a deliciously oily Frank Langella) seems eager for any reason to fire him.
Like “Moneyball,” “Draft Day” (which is the first produced script by the team of Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman) is one of those rare sports movies more concerned by what goes on in the executive suite than on the playing field, and it’s refreshingly smart about the complex decisions that go into making the hires and trades that often send fans into a tizzy, but which may be in the long-term best interests of the team. When the movie opens, the 2013 draft is a mere 13 hours away, and the agreed-upon No. 1 prospect is Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a Heisman-winning quarterback fresh out of the U. of Wisconsin. The Browns, slated to pick seventh in the first round, don’t seem to have a shot, until the Seattle Seahawks call with a devil’s bargain: their No. 1 first-round slot in exchange for the Browns’ next three years’ worth of first-round picks.
Weaver mulls the offer, accepts, then just as soon starts to have second thoughts. On the one hand, Callahan has all the signs of a star in the making. On the other, Cleveland already has a QB (Tom Welling), newly recovered from a knee injury and playing better than ever. The hotheaded Browns coach (Denis Leary) says he hates rookie QBs — it takes them too long to learn all the plays — and, besides, what they really need is a new running back, one like Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), whose father (real-life NFL vet Terry Crews) was also a Brown back in the day. Weaver has other doubts, too — doubts of a more intuitive kind, about Callahan’s character, his sportsmanship, and his ability to be a good team player. Which is not to even mention Vontae Mack (an excellent Chadwick Boseman), the Ohio State linebacker who just might have the greatest career potential of them all.
Joseph and Rothman have done their homework, and if “Draft Day” lacks some of “Moneyball’s” particularly charged, eggheaded air, it nevertheless benefits from a strong insider’s feel. It knows that for all the scouting and statistical analysis and endless rewatching of game-day videos, any sports draft remains an inexact science, one in which a ballyhooed first-round pick might turn out to be a bust, while a sixth-round also-ran (like New England’s Tom Brady) can turn into an unexpected star. And it understands the delicate balancing of fan expectations, budgetary constraints and fragile alpha-male egos that goes on behind the scenes of even the most successful sports franchises. Most of all, “Draft Day” affords the simple but uncommon pleasure of watching intelligent characters who are passionate about what they do trying to do the best that they can.
Given a strong but talky script, much of which involves Costner wheeling and dealing by phone with agents (including one played by Sean Combs), players and rival GMs in other cities, Reitman and d.p. Eric Steelberg draw on an inventive split-screen technique that allows us to see both sides of each conversation at once, but in constantly shifting proportions and arrangements. It’s the sort of gimmick that might easily have proved distracting if overused, but which Reitman keeps nicely in check, and which has the intended effect of pulling us more deeply into rather static scenes.
The climactic draft proves more than worth the wait, and Costner is a particular pleasure to watch in it, hustling to and fro and playing all sides against an imagined middle as the clock ticks and the possible outcomes narrow. He’s surrounded by a gallery of equally appealing supporting players, including Garner, whose casting as Costner’s s.o. plays right into stereotypes about Hollywood’s age and gender biases, but who nevertheless brings a no-nonsense edge to her portrayal of a football fanatic working extra-hard to prove herself in the boys club of pro football.
Pic is packed with cameos from real-life Browns past and present (including the legendary Jim Brown), sportscasters and analysts (Chris Berman, Jon Gruden and Deion Sanders), and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell himself.