HOT SPROTS TAKES reviews “Draft Day”

The eternal spectre that is the NFL Draft is upon us once again, a sports tradition as sure as the springtime rain. What was once little more than a glorified conference call, the NFL’s amateur draft is now a three-day festival celebrating the excesses of the sport. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Draft was set to take place in Las Vegas, Nevada, with draftees expected to ride gondolas to the draft stage in the center of the Bellagio fountains. Last year’s draft in Nashville, Tennessee, attracted over 110,000 visitors.

In Roger Goodell’s egotistical mania to make the NFL synonynous with apple pie and freedom in the American heart and mind, he has steered the NFL from a gladiator sport, which could palpably be described as a regional sport with national appeal to a sleek, monastic and wholly inescapable part of our sociopolitcal sphere.

Much like how Amazon started as an online bookstore and became a terrifying benevolent dictator with tendrils in every aspect of the American economy, Goodell has pushed the NFL to heights unknown in just over a decade, turning football into the pre-eminent cultural icon, with exclusive control over its brand in a number of aspects, even including what kinds of food and clothing it allows draft prospects to wear on the most important day of their lives.

“Protect the Shield” is less a slogan and more of a way of life; despite countless self-inflicted scandals and a seeming disregard for player health and having good relationships with fanbases and cities, the league is more popular than ever, far eclipsing their former rivals (namely the MLB) based on sheer willpower alone. Goodell has been able to do this due in part to simultaneously caring and disregarding public relations. While “protect the shield” is the credo he lives by, he’s also just as willing to sell the shield’s integrity if he thinks it’ll bring in a few million more dollars to distribute to the 32 owners he’s employed by.

Which leads us to what we’re here for in the first place: reviewing “Draft Day,” a 2014 theatrical release from something called Odd Lot Entertainment, which doesn’t exist anymore.

Starring Kevin Costner as down-on-his-luck general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., the movie goes on to chronicle a day in the life of an NFL GM, right down to the “hiding your relationship with the conventially attractive salary cap czar,” “spreading your dad’s ashes on the practice field and reciting ancient Gaelic poetry while all your co-workers watch” and “breaking your intern’s laptop in a fit of rage” aspects.

(Yes, these are all actual things which happen in the movie.)

The plot also centers around three walking, talking stereotypes in our “target prospects,” including the rich, upper-class white boy quarterback Bo Callahan, the humble, hard-working linebacker with a penchant for hard hits in Vontae Mack and the son of a legendary NFL player who has “character issues” in running back Ray Jennings.

Most of the plot revolving around this merry crew is based on Kevin Costner’s inability to communicate clearly. (SPOILER ALERTS ABOUND)

Instead of ensuring Mack that he’s the pick “no matter what,” Weaver first insults Mak by asking him for a different linebacker’s number and hanging up on him before trading into the #1 overall pick without informing Mack of the team’s intentions, then proceeds to chastise him for reacting understandably to the news on social media before ultimately drafting him anyway.

In regards to Bo Callahan, it’s inferred the war room has done zero research on Callahan prior to the day they made the trade, forcing everyone into emergency scouting mode and drawing the ire of the head coach for trading away the next THREE YEARS of draft picks with no heads-up.

Meanwhile, Ray Jennings (played by real-life running back Arian Foster) is treated as little more than a plot device, reduced to trying to explain away his “character issues” to a disinterested Weaver over the phone and then isn’t heard from again for over an hour until the movie decides he’s suddenly important again.

The galaxy brain move to suddenly show interest in Callahan 12 hours before the pick is made plummets team morale, to the point where the coach goes behind the GM’s back to try and make a trade happen. Instead of doing his job and considering the offer, or talking to the head coach and trying to figure out something which could work, he cuts off all communication and goes rogue for at least six hours, making the #1 choice without telling anyone his intentions, not even the owner. This is something any NFL GM would be fired for before the next pick in real life, but in the “Draft Day” universe, this is little more than a quirky personality trait.

And that’s just the basic plot stuff. We’re not even expounding upon the subplot of Weaver grieving his father’s death (which, he doesn’t really,) or the subplot of his fractured relationship with his pregnant salary cap czar (played by Capital One spokeswoman Jennifer Garner) affecting the work environment, or even the subplot of every other NFL GM thinking he’s an absolute mark.

The writing is painfully contrived; Rajiv Joseph, an award-winning playwright mostly known for creating stage dramas laced with discussions of race and societal issues, is given a bear of an assignment for his first screenplay, and doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s painfully obvious he had no basic understanding of football, as the script does everything in its power to avoid any real football talk outside of stereotyping about what football sounds like to the uninitiated ear.

The director, Ivan Reitman, who was also the co-founder of the other studio involved in the making of Draft Day, is a long way from the 1980’s and 1990’s, when his credits included Ghostbusters, Kindergarden Cop, Junior, Beethoven and Space Jam. It’s apparent from the outset that Reitman, who is a well-renowned comedic director, was well out of his comfort zone, as his main advice to actors seemed to be “act like the direct deposit is going through this week.”

The cinematography is disjointed at points, and most especially during the “walk and talk” scenes, as characters freely walk around in the foreground and background, intermixing into the scene in perplexing ways. After being used in the lead up, this technique is suddenly abandoned in the pivotal in-draft scenes, which took on a more conventional back-and-forth look. (This is honestly very hard to explain if you haven’t seen it, and sadly, searches for example clips didn’t go very far at all, so just trust me on this.)

It is this combination of poor scripting and lackadasical direction which causes this 110-minute movie to feel both unnecessarily long and unpleasantly short all at once. The derth of both characterization and substance is woefully apparent; the majority of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to either characters re-explaining plot points which have already unfolded or to being introduced to new characters who serve no purpose other than to take up a minute or two of dialogue.

The few scraps of football which do show up are ultimately as useful as leather jerky.

The names of players are thrown about as if we’re supposed to know about their signifigance, but are never given any other context. Football terms are barely used at all; the head coach at one point makes reference to a play call, but it’s ultimately gibberish. Scouts are apparently more concerned with how many “chicks” Bo Callahan has “banged” than whether or not he’s a good prospect. The ESPN and NFL Network tie-ins, filmed to look like actual segments, are 90’s-era video game cutscene cringey.

The trading scenes (which, need I remind you is the main narrative crux of the film) are in and of themselves impossible to follow the logic of.

For instance, the main catalyst of the tension in the movie is a trade Seattle makes with Weaver’s character in the first scene, giving away the #1 overall pick in exchange for three future firsts, ensuring the Seahawks at least two first-round selections for the next three drafts. This is a coup by all measures, but is met with derision by the fanbase, who drive into the facility and call for his head on a silver platter minutes after the news breaks out. The immediate solution, of course, is to trade the next three years of second-round picks for the pick ahead of the Seahawks, who they then bilk for all the picks they previously traded 12 hours prior and a kick returner “becuase I feel like it.” They effectively fall six positions (back to their original pick) and trade three second round picks for a kick returner, when they could have stayed pat at 7 and selected their guy anyway.

Nothing about this movie makes sense, and I haven’t even gotten down into a lot of the nitty gritty. (It would take way too much time to explain, and I’m already at my wit’s end.) Yet, it is a film I find myself unable to stop thinking about. I suppose, then, that it did exactly what it was intended to do.

Make no mistake, Draft Day was certainly intended to act as a big ol’ advertisement for the NFL and help distract people from the litany of the problems the league faced at the time. As Jack Hamilton pointed out in his original 2014 review on Slate, Hamilton said that Draft Day “isn’t so much a movie as a movielike infomercial for the kinder, gentler NFL,” and that the NFL doubled down on “its fantasy of paternalism… a vision of sports where rich men in expensive suits and branded apparel always have everyone’s best interests at heart.”

This foray into cinema was the NFL assuming that people would flock to see this movie solely becuase it was the first one to ever have the endorsement of the league, hoping to attract both casual viewers and die-hards alike. The arrogance bled into the film itself, and was ultimately reflected in how much of a box office failure it was. Draft Day, a film with a $25 million budget, made a measely $9 million on opening weekend, and $29 million total in its theatrical run.

For a league single-handedly obsessed with controlling the message, why would they allow such a half-assed product to happen? To that question, I would say it’s because for a long time, the NFL has gotten away with half-assing a lot of things, and we’ve largely let them get away with that.

Draft Day is only one (completely forgettable) example of the NFL’s inability to understand its own limitations; the obsession with image can result in squeezing out creativity, something a movie needs to survive. You would think the NFL learned this lesson when they killed ESPN’s “Playmakers” series a couple years prior to making this farce of a movie, and open up a little bit. Instead, they figured it’d be better to just have creative control themselves, resulting in the patchwork you can watch for free (with ads) on Vudu.

From taking advantage of a pandemic to force the NFLPA to vote on a favorable collective bargaining agreement, to fighting CTE settlements, to being dragged kicking and scraming to support social justice causes, the NFL has been the center of a lot of heat in recent years because of their half-assed approach to pretty much any slight inconveneince.

Yet, nothing has ever touched them.

We still tune in to watch the games. We all play fantasy football. We all make bets on the game. We all tune in to ESPN and the NFL Network and consume the content. It’s what has allowed the NFL to continue that behavior for as long as it has.

We should expect better, and yet, we always settle. Much like Draft Day could have been an intimate drama about the pressures of failure and success, but settled instead for being a waste of everyone’s time.

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