During one fateful day known as NFL Draft Day, a chess match plays out in pro football corporate offices across America.
This draft day, we join Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), GM of the Cleveland Browns. Fiftyish Sonny represents an ambitious, aging everyman determined to make his mark on an otherwise lackluster career.
At home, Sonny’s choices are also tough. His girlfriend, whip-smart Cleveland Brown’s attorney Ali (Jennifer Garner), makes this morning a test of Sonny’s commitment to their thus-far, clandestine office romance.
Meanwhile, Brown’s owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), demands that Sonny score a draft-day touchdown, or be sacked. Friends are in short supply as seemingly every Clevelander turns a critical eye toward the Ohio losing team. Sports commentators and radio personalities ask whether Sonny, a legacy general manager of Sonny’s beloved, recently deceased dad, has what it takes to build a winning team.
Seeking someone desperate enough to overpay for their number one pick position, Denver offers Sonny a deal that might save his bacon today, but could cost Sonny’s team its future. Before the day is out, Sonny may be a laughing stock, even to his own twitter-reading mom (Ellen Burstyn), and is both cajoled and threatened by one of the teams most valuable assets, head Coach Penn (Denis Leary). In other words, Sonny’s got much to prove, and even more to lose.
The film both reveals and reveres the innards of a football franchise. We meet the Brown’s strength coach who opines on the own draft-pick analysis from his vantage at the team gym, visit the Brown’s cafeteria where colleagues negotiate, board the team owner’s helicopter, watch an intern scramble to appease an unruly group and join a gathering at Brown coaching headquarters.
In order to determine how best to use his number one pick, Sonny tasks a research team, questions college coaches, and speaks to potential draftees. Spare moments are spent in contemplation while staring out the window of his office overlooking Weaver Field (the team’s practice arena named for Sonny’s father).
Split screens, detailing key phone calls, reveal the self-satisfaction of the horse traders involved. Contrast this with the red carpet atmosphere of a fancy Manhattan theater where football personalities assemble for the NFL’s televised draft announcements. Here, names are written on cards tucked inside yellow envelopes, and passed on to the NFL commissioner (Roger Goodell appearing as himself) who reads them with the import of Oscar winners.
In actuality, the black tie affair is more like a Miss America pageant for would-be pro football players, a paycheck for their agents, and a parade for team owners intent on promoting their own hype while staking their claims.
Even a non-football fan, such as myself, feels invigorated watching Sonny maneuver. He’s a cunning, half-starved beast, reluctant to share the hunt. Costner, whose career was built on playing underestimated characters, works his magic again, taking on a quiet, deep-thinking, deep-feeling stoic Midwesterner.
I can’t argue that “Draft Day” is 100 percent realistic, but watching Sonny reach for the brass ring, I want to believe it is.