Draft Day, in theaters Friday, is essentially a two-hour commercial for the National Football League, only it barely has any football action at all. Everything takes off the field, inside teams' front offices. So how do you make a movie about the NFL devoid of football interesting? By making everything else as dramatic as possible.
(Warning: There are spoilers below, if suspense in a movie like Draft Day matters to you.)
It's clear from the onset that Draft Day is exerting considerable effort and whipping out every weapon in its arsenal to crank up the drama factor. Seriously: when we first meet NFL general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) , his father's a week in the grave and he just learned that his hush-hush work girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant. Plus, as the title strongly hints at, it's DRAFT DAY, and the countdown clock in the corner of the screen won't let us forget. It's the sports movie equivalent of that Simpsons where Marge invites Homer's army drill sergeant, IRS auditor, and Reverend Lovejoy over for dinner, where nothing can go wrong; the perfect storm to make the most stressful day in the history of ever. The movie takes a concept with mid-level tension (at least for NFL diehards) and then tosses in every other possible point of tension you could think of, to make sure you're really engaged. If the impending-fatherhood doesn't get you, the dead parent will.
The actual draft portion of the movie is fairly realistic. The film actually shot footage at the 2013 NFL draft, and the central trade of the movie, which gives Sonny and his Cleveland Browns the number one overall pick (because: drama) isn't that far off from a trade two years ago, when Washington swapped a collection of draft picks to move up to St. Louis' position. It's the sort of moderate excitement that leads to scenes like this:
But Draft Day isn't content with that. It wants every stake upped. With the draft, Sonny has to "save football in Cleveland" or he'll lose his job, as the Browns' owner (played by Frank Langella) so kindly tells him. When he's making deals with other NFL general managers, Sonny and his competition trade barbs and curses as if they're arch-rivals, at a pitch that likely transcends the usual real-life tensions between GMs. If you wished the number-crunching suits who ran your favorite NFL teams traded barbs like old foes, Draft Day is for you.
The film's characters are little more than instruments to create this drama. Sonny is a struggling GM trying to save his job while he deals with a dead dad and impending fatherhood. Jennifer Garner is playing the tough-girl trying to prove herself in the boys club. There's Sonny's mother, your archetypal sassy old lady (Ellen Burstyn, in compliance with the constitutional amendment requiring Ellen Burstyn to play all such roles), who shows up on draft day and demands to spread her husband's ashes, just because. The head coach and pseudo-villain of the movie, played by Dennis Leary, is the ultimate schmuck, threatening to quit if Sonny doesn't do what he wants. The team's quarterback is coming back from knee surgery and is in "the best shape of his life," but when he hears Sonny wants to draft another QB, he rampages in and trashes Sonny's office.
Sonny's draft prospects are painted with the broadest brush imaginable, creating a palpable sense of oppositional drama that's nearly comical. The Right Pick (according to Sonny's gut, of course) is a humble linebacker with two nephews and a recently deceased sister (seriously, the grim specter of familial death is all over this one); the Wrong Pick is a cocky, pretty-boy quarterback who's a liar and decidedly not a team player. The screenwriters even considered making one of the draft prospects gay, but decided against "because it felt unrealistic." It's hard to make the claim that such a twist would've been too much, because in Draft Day there isn't such a thing as "too much." It takes all of about five minutes to figure out who Sonny is going to draft, and that's before you learn the folded piece of paper he's been carrying around all day reads "Vontae Mack [the aforementioned linebacker and Right Pick] no matter what," meaning all the central will-he-or-won't-he drama surrounding Sonny was decided at the very beginning.
But even that isn't enough, because the characters don't really have anything to do. The action of the NFL draft takes place on the telephone, between people hundreds of miles apart. That on its own makes for a fairly boring movie — Phone Tag! Coming Summer 2015! — so the film does its best to make these calls riveting. New GMs are introduced with stadium flyovers and fancy title cards ("SEATTLE: HOME OF THE SEAHAWKS" "ARAKIS: HOME OF HOUSE ATREIDES") and during the actual calls, we get a fancy split-screen, with characters walking in and out of each other's halves. There is more movement and action during these phone calls than you would think possible, but it's what the film has to do to make time-consuming phone calls compelling to watch. It only halfway works.
Draft Day is interesting in that it throws so much at the viewer, and it is so obviously trying hard to make itself worth watching. It wants to appeal to both NFL fanatics who obsess over the draft and a wider audience who want to know when Costner and Garner will just kiss already, jeez. It's the conflation of the two that gives the movie its most awkward moments: like when we learn that Sonny, as GM, fired his late-father who was the team's old head coach (drama!), but only to save him from stress-induced health problems (more drama!). Which are we supposed to focus on? Sonny's personal drama or the draft? The movie doesn't seem to know.
The NFL draft is a subject most moviegoers will find extremely tedious, because it inherently is. The league itself struggles with this dilemma every year when it tries to turn the event into a cable TV extravaganza. The majority of drama and excitement is fabricated simply for the sake of being dramatic. The struggle of Draft Day doesn't come in trying to make a good or bad movie, it comes in trying to make the NFL draft into a movie at all.