A “Draft” De-Fanged: Kevin Costner (And Roger Goodell) Bring You A Milquetoast “Moneyball”

Review, “Draft Day” – *** stars (out of ****)

Released April 11, 2014
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Rajiv Joseph, Scott Rothman
Cinematography by Eric Steelberg
Starring Kevin Costner, James Brown, Frank Langella, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Superman
Running Time: 110 minutes
Budget: $27 million
Worldwide Box Office: $29.5 million

WARNING: This review contains abundant spoilers. They’re so convoluted that it’s really worth watching the movie first, otherwise you may become fairly lost.

When they were married, Ben Affleck and ex-wife Jennifer Garner (Kevin Costner’s love interest in “Draft Day”) together comprised maybe the two most perplexing movie stars of the 21st century so far. What confounds me can best be summed up with this question: HOW DO THESE PEOPLE KEEP GETTING WORK? I was flabbergasted that Affleck got to be in a David Fincher movie the same year Garner trampled through “Draft Day,” 2014, and after seeing him just barely achieve competence in said movie, I was even MORE flabbergasted that Affleck and Fincher are now scheduled to team up AGAIN to remake one of the great Hitchcock thrillers of all time, “Strangers On A Train,” a movie too good to warrant a remake. What’s next, “Psycho?” Oh wait. So, yeah. That turned out well.

Anyway. The former Mrs. Affleck tries her damnedest to destroy “Draft Day” with her wooden acting non-chops, but happily has been surrounded by quality actors ranging from charismatic-and-pretty-good (star Kevin Costner) to really, really good (Frank Langella, Dennis Leary, Chadwick Boseman, Clark Kent). I love Kevin Costner more than anybody else in the movie, but objectively, he’s not at the level of the talent director Ivan Reitman surrounds him with here. I am a sucker for a good sports movie, and all those epic GM phone conferences in the superior “Moneyball” (2011), frankly, whet my appetite for an onslaught of sweet sports front office-themed flicks. Sadly, that onslaught never came. But now we have “Draft Day!” And damn it, “Draft Day” boasts EVEN MORE general manager phone conferences!

As I mentioned above, this breakdown contains a few spoilers, so tread carefully if you haven’t seen this movie yet. In the much-ballyhooed pantheon of Kevin Costner sports flicks, I’d say “Draft Day” ranks a distant third behind “Field of Dreams” (1989) and “Bull Durham” (1988). I think it DOES safely outclass “Tin Cup” (1997), even though, like “Tin Cup” before it, “Draft Day” boasts some ludicrous plotting that would frustrate any fan of the sport it’s supposed to document. “Tin Cup” ended with Kostner’s journeyman golfer blowing a HUGE advantage on the 18th hole of a big-deal pro tournament for no understandable reason. It was abject nonsense, and it completely murdered the movie’s golf cred. I think we all know where “For The Love Of The Game” ranks, so let’s just move on. There are several fairly goofy, vaguely improbable deals that Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr. (a great movie name, by the way), GM for the Cleveland Browns, implements throughout the day. It is here that “Draft Day” screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman throw in a plot twist so frustrating that it too threatens to derail the movie. And upon further reflection, it sort of eats away at you… To the point where you drop it five spots in your year-end movie power rankings. Kind of a huge thing, since it’s supposed to be the final magical GM move Sonny makes that galvanizes his cynical coach and team owner around his decision-making.

Let’s set the stage: the whole movie takes place over the course of a single day, the day of the 2014 NFL draft, obviously. That morning, Sonny mortgages his team’s long-term future with a high-impact, win-now move: he trades three first-round draft picks (consisting of his pick in the 2014 draft, #7 overall, plus Cleveland’s first-round picks in 2015 and 2016) to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for their 2014 draft pick, which happens to be #1 overall. This is a pick that Seattle surely would have used on Bo Callahan (Josh Pence, who was Armie Hammer’s body double in “The Social Network”), a quarterback who’s the consensus #1 pick in the draft. However, by trading this pick, it’s clear to Sonny that Seattle doesn’t want Bo Callahan. He probes his Seahawks counterpart (Patrick St. Esprit) about this sticking point – why doesn’t this GM, Tom Michaels (a stupid movie name), want to draft this supposed sure-thing quarterback Bo Callahan? What’s wrong with him? Michaels demurs from direct answers. Anyway, a few hours later, after Sonny has controversially picked linebacker Vontae Mack (Boseman) at #1, Callahan finds himself falling out of the top 5. So now, Sonny mortgages his future again, this time trading three future second-rounders to Jacksonville for the #6 pick, with Bo Callahan still on the board.

NOW, though, is when the movie suffers its biggest blunder. Armed with this #6 pick, Weaver calls Seattle GM Tom Michaels again and… dangles Callahan at him. Callahan, keep in mind, was a player whom Michaels didn’t want to draft as the #1 pick in the first place. Callahan is also – and this is key – a player that SONNY doesn’t want. For this great charitable gifting of a player that Michaels, just hours before, hadn’t wanted (but apparently has changed his mind about after… reading some angry fan message boards? I guess?), Sonny innocently requests… ALL THREE of the first-round draft picks that he had traded to Michaels that morning. In the Seahawks’ war room, as they discuss Sonny’s initial offer to give them the #6 pick in exchange for the three first-rounders, the Seattle GM’s boss (Chi McBride), who I guess is the Team President or VP of Football Operations or something, observes that potentially drafting at #6 would solve their “cap problem.”

The Seattle GM hems and haws, and then, playing hardball with very little leverage, Sonny ADDS a great special teams player from Seattle to his list of trade requests. And of course, because Sonny is Kevin Costner and Kevin Costner is the star of this movie, Tom Michaels MAKES THE TRADE. The explanation is… solving a “cap space problem.“ You see, by drafting Callahan with the sixth pick instead of the first, the Seattle Seahawks would save $7 million a year.

Quickly, then, to review: after trading the #1 draft pick to Kevin Costner in exchange for three first-rounders, including a top-10 pick this year and the Browns’ next two first-rounders, Seattle trades back ALL THREE of those picks PLUS a 2007 Devin Hester-esque punt returner, all in service of nabbing the #6 pick to draft a player that they hadn’t wanted a few hours ago. So ultimately, the Seahawks have flipped the #1 draft pick AND a high-level return specialist for… the #6 draft pick. Maaaybe you could have gotten away with moving this apparently great return specialist in the script by calling it a cost-cutting move to avoid going over the salary cap or whatever, EXCEPT that explanation has already been ruled out by this point. That’s because, again, it’s been established that just by exchanging the #1 pick for the #6 pick, Seattle would be under the salary cap. Thus, having the aforementioned awesome punt returner on the team’s payroll presumably wouldn’t put them over the cap. So why give him up? No idea. Makes no sense. Even somebody who knows absolutely nothing about football would understand that this is a horrible, horrible deal. In what world is unloading a #1 pick you don’t really like AND a great specialist in exchange for that same player at #6, whom you still don’t really like, a thing that makes any sense?

BUT THAT’S NOT EVEN THE PART OF THE DEAL THAT DESTROYS THE MOVIE. Are you ready for it? It’s actually already been established earlier in the movie, but it’s a lead that kind of gets buried. Here it goes: remember those three first-round picks that Seattle had acquired from Cleveland? These draft picks INCLUDED a pick in the top 10 in THIS YEAR’S draft. What was that position again? Oh right, #7. So… the Cleveland Browns, who before the day’s second trade with Seattle have the #6 pick, would have passed on drafting Bo Callahan here had they kept the pick. I’d say the movie makes that pretty clear. The guy they want at this point in the draft is running back Ray Jennings (played by real-life Pro Bowler running back Arian Foster), so they’d obviously just draft Jennings at #6 INSTEAD of Callahan. Costner/Sonny makes it fairly obvious to every GM he talks to that he doesn’t care about Callahan, so it’s hard to believe that Seattle would fall for Sonny pretending he’d draft Callahan at #6. Which means… Callahan would still be available for Seattle, who, again, before this second trade with the Browns, happen to be picking right after them. And hey, guess what? The #7 pick gets paid EVEN LESS MONEY than the #6 pick per NFL rookie salary rules, meaning that Seattle ALREADY HAD SOLVED THEIR “CAP PROBLEM” BEFORE MAKING THIS DEAL, WHICH WOULD HAVE ACTUALLY INCREASED THEIR PAYROLL. So the “cap problem” that the GM and VP had been discussing in the war room at the end of the movie had ALREADY been taken care of. They weren’t going to be over the cap by this point in the movie anyway, even if they had refused to move the special teams guy. There was never any financial reason to flip the special teams guy too.

Just to recap, then: first, the Seattle Seahawks swapped 2014’s #1 pick for three first-round picks, including 2014’s #7 pick, to avoid drafting a player they didn’t really like, to save some money, and to acquire future assets beyond this draft. THEN, after Cleveland grabbed the #6 pick from Jacksonville, Cleveland called Seattle and offered them that pick back in exchange for the very next pick, the two future first-rounders, AND a star special teams player, all so that Seattle could draft a player they hadn’t wanted before. And Seattle bit on this deal EVEN THOUGH CLEVELAND WOULD HAVE PASSED ON DRAFTING THE PLAYER SEATTLE WANTED AT #6 AND SEATTLE COULD HAVE JUST DRAFTED HIM AT #7 WHILE KEEPING CLEVELAND’S ADDITIONAL TWO FUTURE FIRSTS AND SEATTLE’S OWN SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER.

You could say this is picking nits, and really, the movie is super fun if you just pretend that a more plausible series of trades was made throughout, which I’m trying to keep in mind for my cumulative appraisal of “Draft Day.” But it’s also kind of the key storyline of the whole damn movie. I’m not the only person who noticed this, by the way. After writing my rant above, I noticed that Bill Simmons totally caught it too. Anyway, this is almost as dumb as the end of “Tin Cup,” or everything that happens in “Waterworld,” or Costner trying to use a British accent for exactly half of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” and the rest of the time just talking like he’s from Lynwood, CA.

I just… I can’t believe this movie was produced, with the complete blessing of the NFL, as the first mainstream feature film to go into the minutiae of NFL front office evaluations and decision-making, and yet it contains trades so dumb that anyone affiliated with the NFL would have taken issue with the player moves in a heartbeat had they actually, you know, read the script beforehand. It’s still, on the whole, a pretty solid flick. You just have to try not to think much while you watch it.

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