Monday, May 4, 2015

Conflicted, Confused—and Clever—Costner

Review of Draft Day with Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Denis Leary

Cleveland Browns team manager Sonny Weaver needs to come out from under the shadows of his father, the revered (and now deceased) coach of that team. His opportunity comes in this taut story, told through the events during fewer than 24 hours leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft. 

Costner is outstanding as Weaver, a man struggling with an owner (Frank Langella as Anthony Molina) who dismisses his plan for the team's future as "not splashy enough", a caustic coach (Denis Leary's star shines brightly here) with a Super Bowl ring who was hired to replace the father Weaver had fired just before he died, a girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) who throws an unplanned pregnancy into the mix of challenges Weaver is facing, and a mother (Ellen Burstyn) who shows up scant hours before the draft is ready to commence, insisting that Weaver should help her scatter his late father's ashes over the Browns' practice field, right now.

The turmoil inside the Cleveland Browns War Room is shown in counterpoint with the other teams' draft-day strategies, the college players' agents' maneuvers on each client's behalf, and the reactions of the players themselves to the pressure and anticipation of the draft. 

Through this melee of emotions, deadlines, and conflict, Costner's performance walks Weaver along an incredibly thin line. He makes us see the son devastated by the need to fire his own father, the child grieving for a hero-parent, the man uncertain how to respond to impending fatherhood in his own right, all while trying to deal with the intense pressure to perform brilliantly for his team.

Almost anything I could say about the NFL draft depicted in the film would constitute a spoiler. But the appearance throughout of notable NFL personalities and current-day players (28 of them!), and the references to football history and legend, are bound to satisfy the most ardent fan of the sport. 

You don't need to be a baseball fan to love Field of Dreams. Golf does not have to be your passion for Tin Cup to appeal. You don't have to be into bicycle racing to enjoy American Flyers. And whatever your feelings about football, Draft Day answers the deeper needs we look to have fulfilled by the triumphs of our sports team, and the drama and tragedy they can also reveal. 

Draft Day gives us an ample serving of all three, with this look at the metagame that underlies professional football.

Random Observations:

There are echoes of Ray Kinsella (Field of Dreams) and Lieutenant Dunbar (Dances With Wolves), among many other previous Costner characters, in Sonny Weaver. Perhaps this is because Costner, like many great actors, lends much of himself to his roles. 

Ralph the annoying War Room consultant is not played by Meat Loaf Aday, but by W. Earl Brown. He sure looks like Meat Loaf, though!

Transitions use an overlap of split screens that show widely-separated places in proximity, giving an immediacy to these conversations. In the past, this narrative would have been handled with cuts. The split-screen lets us see both parties' faces as they interact. Characters on either side of the split line overlap (and sometimes even cross) that line, showing their real-time interaction in a fresh way. I predict we will see a lot more of this treatment in future films.

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