by Paul Deines
Profiles in Batshittery is a series where I break down a train-wreck film, one with style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially. The type of film that still draws me in when I happen upon it late night on TV.
The 2016 NFL Draft is upon us. It’s that first stirring of excitement for the new season, though we’re only two months removed from the last Super Bowl and four away from the start of the preseason. Once upon a time, the Draft was a low-key affair held in hotel event spaces, before football cemented its place as the dominant American professional sport.
That was also before the rise of fantasy sports.
Now that anyone (myself included) can play general manager, our understanding of football has shifted. Personnel moves are as interesting as Xs and Os. The game is not just the game: it’s management and scouting. It’s the college boys playing on Saturday, all promise and potential. He hope these young talents can elevate our team, be it real or fantasy. The enactment of this hope is the Draft.
In 2014, Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day premiered, an NFL-approved dramatization of this game-surrounding the game, starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Chadwick Boseman.
What it promised and what it delivered …
The intent of Draft Day is, well, hazy, but I believe the operative word of the title is day. To my mind, the look, tone and arc of this picture makes it a thing of a sequel to such sweetness-delivery vehicles as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. It looks like a rom-com, with flattering golden-light photography and loving helicopter city shots. It’s also an endearing, sincere film.
Only Costner’s Sonny Weaver, Jr., GM of the Cleveland Browns, is not looking for a girlfriend. He’s looking for a first-round draft pick. That’s a clever conceit. A franchise player can become – for better or worse – the embodiment of a town. Fans are apt to feel something akin to love for a Namath or a Gronk, and to be tasked with finding that next iconic player is not unlike the search for a soulmate. And Sonny’s fortunes might have shifted: he has just traded for the first overall pick.
So, what are his options? There’s a beloved hometown favorite lineman (Boseman). There’s also a running back (Arian Foster) whose father was a Brown but who’s contending with legal issues. Owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) is pushing for a shiny new Heisman-winner quarterback (Josh Pence).
Like any solid rom-com, we know immediately who the heel is. Pence has the media-coached arrogance of Tom Brady, but Costner sees through it: something’s off about this kid. Turns out – gasp – he’s socially awkward and lies sometimes. Place that against the Brown’s recent real-world QB fiasco: Johnny Manziel. Johnny Football’s probable alcoholism and domestic abuse feel considerably worse than the QB who had no friends at this birthday.
Conversely, we know who we’re supposed to love: Boseman! He wants it so bad, and every time we see him he’s with his little sister, whom he is guardian for since their parents’ death. It’s pretty manipulative, but he is a damn good actor, and watching his sustained charm offensive is tremendously winning.
What works and what doesn’t …
Draft Day is pretty engrossing when it dramatizes the mercantilist world of pro football. It stumbles when it tries its hand at human drama. Emotional truth is not this film’s strong suit.
So, I was shocked to learn that this script was written by playwright Rajiv Joseph. Joseph emerged in the New York theatre scene a decade ago. In 2009, his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo premiered on Broadway starring Robin Williams was short-listed for the Pulitzer. This year, his historical drama Guards at the Taj was nominated for a slate of Lucille Lortel Awards.
To hear Joseph tell it, Draft Day grew out of a series of afternoons spent drinking beer and watching football with his friend and fellow writer Scott Rothman. This was not a gun-for-hire script: it was written on spec by exceedingly talented folks. It topped the 2012 Black List of great unproduced screenplays.
So my next thought was that this must have been a darker, more cogent screenplay that was hacked apart during production. Then I did a little research and found that Joseph, Rothman and Costner spent their downtime on set tossing around ideas and a football. Maybe Joseph was just toeing the party line, but this does not sound like a novice writer having his script ripped away from him by an unfeeling studio.
But I’m still amazed by the weirdness in this script.
Let’s start with Sonny, whose father – the Browns’ last GM – has recently died. It’s a nice dramatic device: all of Cleveland – manifested by AM radio and the office old-timers – demands he save the franchise with this first pick. Yet, they also root for him to choke and confirm the assertion that he can’t fill his old man’s shoes. So, he’s facing pressure to succeed and fail simultaneously, which inspires in him a sort of adolescent cruelty. He’s emotionally distant with his salary-cap analyst/secret girlfriend (Garner) and borderline abusive to a new intern (Griffin Newman). Then, he harangues at his still-grieving mother (Ellen Burstyn) for asking him to read a poem at the scattering of his fathers’ ashes.
Of course, the only character that is more unlikable than Sonny is anyone who happens to be talking to him. More than a couple times, a person who disagrees with his draft strategy tells him they’re glad his father is dead. This script has a lot of drama and some idiosyncratic characters, but everything feels disjointed. Despite all of Joseph’s sunny interviews, I wonder if his initial vision was compromised in some way. Anyway, I should probably stop theorizing about his script. We live in the same neighborhood.
Perhaps Draft Day would have been better served by a less flashy cast. Consider Dennis Leary’s coach, who has a Super Bowl ring he maybe didn’t earn. He’s a plain-speaker, impatient with questions and not above slut-shaming Garner to get his way. This retrograde pragmatist could have been pretty compelling. If a lesser-known actor had played the role, the audience might give him the benefit of the doubt when he challenges Costner. With Leary, though, you cannot break down years of smart-ass characters. You assume he’s being contrarian for the fun of it.
On the flipside, there’s Frank Langella, whose team owner is written as a moneyed buffoon. His opening salvo about waterslides as a metaphor for team management cannot be understood any way other than idiocy. But he’s played by an actor with more gravitas than any American not named Morgan. So we cannot help but take him seriously.
Garner’s flintiness is well-used. She has more to do than the standard buzz-kill girlfriend, but her moments of agency are cursory. She’s spends much of the film trying to make Costner think straight. Burstyn, meanwhile, is wonderful in the type of steely-but-frail matriarch she’s excelled at since Requiem for a Dream. I wish Reitman had given this movie the Spotlight treatment, casting this core of three established actors and filling out the world unknowns and nonprofessionals.
To wit: consider the college QB with no friends. That’s a perfect example of how this tactic might have worked. Spence has little screen work to his name (though he was the body for the second Winklevoss twin in The Social Network), and so we’re left guessing what weird secret he’s hiding. The fake smile, the pouting, the halting answers to simple questions. Dude could be a serial killer. Or just shy.
What’s so batshit about it?
The NFL is famous for how covetously it guards its trademarks, but for Draft Day it opened the intellectual property vault: logos, graphics, archival footage. It’s a filmic world that looks a lot like the real NFL but isn’t.
The Seahawks had just won the Super Bowl in 2014, but in Draft Day they somehow have first pick. Well, you say, this is fiction. Of course, except that it’s a world where Jim Brown, Deion Sanders and Ray Lewis all appear as themselves, where characters reverently discuss Joe Montana’s cool in Super Bowl XXIII. So, I guess this a Doc Brown alternate present where at a certain point Seattle did not acquire Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson or Richard Sherman. This probably shouldn’t bother me, but it does.
This pseudo-veracity can be distracting. The Browns are an apt signifier of down-on-your-luck scrappiness (evidence: search Google Maps for sadness), but I doubt Seattle’s home office loves being portrayed as conniving opportunists looking to cheat a grieving Cleveland GM.
Then, of course, there’s Roger Goodell.
With the possible exceptions of Sepp Blatter and Curt Schilling, Goodell is sport’s most hateable figure. He’s the first NFL commissioner to publicly contend with the game’s brain trauma crisis, and he’s responded with peevish denial. Goodell puffs himself up as football’s hangin’ lawman, but he uses his power to punish weed-smokers and pardon domestic abusers. As the draft’s master of ceremonies, though, he is ickily front and center in this picture.
The most entertaining parts of Draft Day involve horse-trading and psychological warfare between GMs. It opens with the Seahawks front office gaming Sonny into brokering the team’s future in exchange for a first-overall pick that he may or may not have needed. Later in the picture, he pulls the same shenanigans on other GM’s. Reitman wants us to consider the calculus that goes into building a team. In the midst of all of the shouting and hold-time panicking, we should marvel at competent GM who sees the true value of giving a young player a shot and inventing a franchise’s future.
I think that’s Reitman’s higher intent, but there are problems. First, the great man narrative is a bust because Sonny is resolutely not one. He swings wildly between unchecked rage and catatonia. He’s both a mark for the stronger teams and a bully to weaker ones. And by my count and others’, he ultimately gives up a significant number of future early picks in exchange for one player he could have gotten anyway, another he might have gotten in the second round and a kick returner he might not have even needed.
Also, Draft Day came out only three years after a little picture called Moneyball. That Aaron Sorkin-penned adaptation of a Michael Lewis book has a gleeful, messianic, over-caffeinated Billy Beane playing multiple clubs off each other. Sonny can’t match that.
Plus the reality of the draft is far crazier than anything onscreen. Hell, on the eve of the 2016 Draft, Los Angeles wrested the first overall pick from Tennessee in exchange for a jumble of choice future picks. Then Philly made a comparable deal with Cleveland for the second overall pick. And this this year’s is a fairly dull field of prospects. If you want to see what happens when the talent is hyped, check out the 30 for 30 doc Elway to Marino.
Can I recommend it?
To quote a Shakespearean king only slightly eviler than Goodell: what can I say more than I have inferred? It’s as difficult to recommend Draft Day as it is to recommend the concept of professional football, and nothing reveals how ill-advised it is to set a heartwarming comedy against the NFL Draft as the ending.
Everyone cheers Sonny and his (apparent) negotiating skills. Boseman and Foster join the team, and the Browns are sticking with their yeoman QB. Costner, Garner and Burstyn share a sweet moment, and we are done. The season has not yet begun. We’re still four months away from the first kickoff, the first loss, the first injury.
I love football, but I have no allusions about its moral shortfalls. And Draft Day, for all its deficiencies, will pump you up for the new season. In this regard it’s like a fantasy football draft, all gamesmanship and not consequence. Unconcerned with the peril and cost to the careers and health of these players.
Remember: this is a rom-com. We always end after the first kiss. Before the tears.
Next time, we head back to 2007 to dive into the Bush-era paranoiac sci-fi boondoggle Southland Tales.