Kevin Costner is synonymous with sports films. American audiences love to see Costner doing that most American of things, being near sports, nearly as much as they like the other most American thing, pretending to be a cowboy. But Costner is specifically associated with the national pastime, which is to say baseball. The one-two punch of the raunchy fun of Bull Durham and the sentimental magical realism of Field of Dreams (and to a lesser extent, the middle-aged musing of For Love of the Game) made sports movies and Costner the chocolate and peanut butter of popular cinema. However, when Kevin Costner went outside of his lane and tried his hand at a football-themed film, things did not land quite as well with audiences at the time. But the 2014 football drama Draft Day has its own particular charms and you can find out for yourself. It is currently streaming for free on Amazon Freevee, so you don’t have to take our words for it, but still, see what we have to say.
Draft Day was released in a particularly dire period of Kevin Costner’s career. In 2014, he was long past his 1990s glory days at the box office, when films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Dances with Wolves had made him one of the biggest and most Oscar-winning stars in the world. Following the crushing failure of his 1997 post-apocalyptic mail-delivery science fiction action film The Postman (an interesting sequence of words if there ever was one), he had gone from one moderate disappointment to the next box office bomb and back again. His filmography of the time is littered with forgotten movies like Rumor Has It and Dragonfly, and his return to stardom with TV’s biggest show about men in hats squinting at the horizon, Yellowstone, was still years away. Returning to the sports genre just made sense for Kevin Costner at the time.
In Draft Day, Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. The action takes place at the 2014 NFL draft day, the annual event in which teams are given rounds based on the previous season’s performance to recruit new players, and Costner has a whole lot of problems going on. His secret girlfriend/employee Ali (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant (as well as being the Browns’ salary cap analyst) and his father recently died. Incidentally, his father also used to work as a Coach for the Browns and Costner fired him, which really demonstrates his lack of functional work/life boundaries. As Costner prepares to draft linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), he makes a deal under pressure from the team owner (Frank Langella in heavy mode) to trade his seventh overall pick for the Seattle Seahawks’ first overall pick in exchange for his own first-round picks for the next three years, allowing the Browns to pick Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) instead of Mack, even though his gut tells him not to. If your eyes glaze over with the thought of all the math here, get ready for Kevin Costner making a whole lot of phone calls.
Draft Day is a sports movie without sports, in many ways. The action of the movie is instead the politics and negotiation that goes on behind the scenes to make the game of professional football work, and that is a fascinating idea. The NFL is an enormously huge and complex company, and going behind the sports plays and cliches of the genre to examine the men and women that make the business happen has a lot of potential. And while Kevin Costner and a very talented cast of actors, including Garner, Langella, Boseman, Pence, Sam Elliot Denis O’Leary, Ellen Burstyn, W. Earl Brown, and former real-life NFL player Terry Crews largely bring their game, they were hamstrung by the fact that the movie was made with the cooperation of the actual NFL. Oliver Stone’s simpatico 1999 film Any Given Sunday had much the same goal of examining the sordid business of pro football, warts and all. However, lacking NFL cooperation (what with all the portrayed drug use, orgies, and crooked doctors), Stone came up with a fictional league. Kevin Costner’s Draft Day had the real deal and very noticeably did not get down in the dirt. The trade-off for using real teams and logos was to not make them look like moral sinkholes.
Still, Kevin Costner is in fine form as a perpetually stressed, morally compromised general manager. Draft Day was oddly comedy legend Ivan Reitman’s final film but does not share much of the anarchic spirit he brought to movies like Ghostbusters and Stripes. Instead, it is an interesting, unfortunately neutered look at how the football sausage gets made. If you like Kevin Costner and sports, you should give it a watch.