IN THE NAME OF THE DAD: DRAFT DAY
Note: the following discusses the entirety of Draft Day, up to and including the ending. Be forewarned.
With football season upon America once more, it occurred to me to check out Draft Day, released earlier this year, wherein Kevin Costner is the general manager of the Cleveland Browns and must both “make a splash” (at owner Frank Langella's request) and improve his football team (the fitfully realized job description of the general manager). Generally critiques of movies based in how close they hew to reality annoy me, because unless the clear aim of the work in question is to present as close a duplication of reality as it can, its inability to do so is irrelevant (and you can parse “clear aim” all the livelong day, of course). Draft Day is a slightly different creature.
From its opening frames, it touts the verisimilitude of having ESPN, and its bellicose football announcer Chris Berman, on board the project, and proceeds to wave all manner of other Real Brands™ at the audience. Such a movie would appear to deserve a bit of scrutiny on how closely it resembles reality, and were one to put Draft Day under that particular microscope, it would fail miserably. Costner, by my count, does three things over the course of the movie that would have gotten any real-life general manager not only fired but irrevocably exiled from professional football, not to mention one other thing in his backstory that would have already gotten him fired in real life and an ongoing workplace situation that, while not exactly an action, would also be grounds for firing and a good 72 hours in the sports media gossip cycle. Beyond Costner's foibles, there is a league-wide failure in scouting that would be literally impossible with modern technology. There's another uncomfortable absence that I'll mention later, but the above issues would all be rather severe credibility issues . . . if this was supposed to be a realistic movie. But it's not. It's an ad, for the NFL.
Calling it “propaganda” would be a little harsh, and a little wanky. But it's absolutely an advertisement. It foregrounds the sport's quasi-religious awe for paternalistic authority figures, be they coaches, GMs, owners, commissioners, and last but certainly not least in the hearts of Football Men, dads themselves. Costner, as a GM and thus a ceremonial dad, finds himself ill at ease at the movie's outset for not having properly made piece with his dad dad, a recently deceased Football Man whom Costner fired (there's an explanation, and it's very goopy and sentimental in a Dude And His Dad kind of way). Only when the reverence the other Browns employees show his dad when Ellen Burstyn (Mom) shows up to scatter Dad's ashes on his beloved practice field does Costner swing into decisive action, ready to be the dad himself, which he does over the course of some of some seat-of-his-pants, from-the-gut general managing, and finally in his announcement, after all is compassed, to Ellen Burstyn that he and much-younger girlfriend/co-worker Jennifer Garner, are going to have a baby. He is now sufficiently a Dad that he can be a proper Football Man.
The fact that he's covertly dating a co-worker who answers to him in the office makes a lot more sense, and is a lot less call-the-sexual-harassment-attorneys-like-right-fucking-now than it would if be if this was meant to be realistic rather than an unwieldy onanistic metaphor for the Love of the Game (Costner's career sure does have through-lines). And this explains the astonishingly awful job Costner does as GM. The whole megilla is set in motion when, at the crack of dawn the day of the draft, the Seattle Seahawks are inspired by the trade the Rams and the Washington NFL franchise with the racist name made a couple years ago where the Rams sent statistically mind-boggling college quarterback Robert Griffin III to the Racists for approximately every draft pick in the future of the Racist franchise. The fictional Seahawks here find themselves in exactly the Rams' position, with a no-brainer franchise quarterback with whom no scout has found literally anything wrong. The Seahawks' owner (Chi McBride) and GM (the poor man's Clark Gregg) decide to screw over Costner, because the Browns suck, by making him give them even more than the Racists gave the Rams for RGIII. Costner declines, scornfully, because mama Costner didn't raise no fools (remember, she's Ellen Burstyn). Only later, when Frank Langella, in a beautifully oily turn as exactly the kind of capricious, self-fellating rich asshole who would buy an NFL team, tells Costner that he needs to “make a splash” or lose his job, does Costner accept the offer. (One thing the movie doesn't spell out explicitly is the degree to which three consecutive years of Cleveland Browns first round picks would strengthen another team; the Browns are so bad three straight years of their first-rounders would make a real football team so strong they would achieve collective sentience as a hive mind and communicate with aliens.)
Once Costner has the #1 pick, expected to take the can't-miss quarterback prospect, he begins to wonder if the kid is too good to be true. He has his guy do some digging, and his guy unearths two of the funniest bits of “dirt” imaginable. Ivan Reitman—who directed this, for some reason—was the man who brought us Stripes and Ghostbusters, recall, and the two pieces of game-changing character assassination that no one else in the entire NFL unearthed (literally impossible in this day and age, keep in mind) are, respectively, on the level of “Ziskey Rates The Russians: They're Pussies!” and “Yes, it's true your honor, this man has no dick.” The pieces of dirt are these: the first is, at his 21st birthday at which the cops came to deal with a disturbance, none of the quarterback's teammates were in attendance. The second is, another team in the habit of sending its playbook to potential draft picks with a $100 bill tucked into the last page so they'll know who read it to the end caught the kid in a lie when he claimed to have read the whole thing. The idea that the NFL, in its feature-length ad, considers these to be horrible character flaws, is hilarious. I guarantee you, without even having to check, that at least a dozen Super Bowls have been won by teams who, secretly or not, could not fucking stand their (immensely talented) quarterback. That's a conservative estimate. “Character” has nothing to do with being good at sports. There's a guy, Ray Lewis, who appears as himself in Draft Day, who is widely thought to have beaten a murder rap on a technicality, and he won two Super Bowls and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame with a baroque, weepy three-hour-long speech about Jesus the femtosecond he's eligible. And he should be, because he was good at football.
But, as better men than me have before, I digress. Costner, who magically does not get fired for trading away the human race's ability to end the Forever War, proceeds to draft a guy with the #1 pick who would have been, to all accounts in the movie, a reach at the original #7 pick, because Costner likes him and thinks he has character. (Also, there's something weird about the fact that this guy is falling so far in the draft: every clip we see of him shows him playing at an almost preternaturally high level and every Football Man in the movie has a three-foot erection every time his name is mentioned because of his talent and his CHARACTERRRRR; the only way a guy like that falls out of the top 5 in real life is if he's literally at that moment under indictment.) After Costner magically is not shot in the head by Frank Langella over this, he pulls some shenanigans and gets the other draft pick he really wanted as well, a running back prospect played by recent NFL rushing champ Arian Foster, whose dad in the movie (Terry Crews) was a legendary Brown RB of near-Jim Brown stature. AND Costner gets his other draft picks back from Poor Man's Clark Gregg. AND calls him “you pancake eating motherfucker” on a speaker phone. The movie ends with a bunch of people happy to play for the Cleveland Browns, which officially ranks it with Joe E. Brown at the end of Some Like It Hot in the pantheon; the only actual human to be happy to play for the Cleveland Browns in living memory is Johnny Manziel and Johnny Football's likelihood of becoming the Dock Ellis of the NFL and throwing four TDs while rolling his tits off on molly is, shall we say, higher than nil.
But an ending with dudes charging out to battle in Browns jerseys with Jesus and Dad in their hearts is the NFL's ideal vision of itself. Several years ago, the NFL enjoyed a competitive balance no other major American sports league did. Due to management-friendly financial regulations (salary cap, few guaranteed contracts, endless supplies of TV revenue), teams were able to rebuild quickly, to the point where nearly the entire face of the league would change from year to year, last place teams would win the Super Bowl the following year, and so on. Things have changed to where that utopia of parity has dimmed somewhat, but the major change between then and now is the increased awareness of the dire physical harm the game inflicts on its players, particularly on their brains.
There is no universe in which Draft Day, enjoying the favor of the league that it does, would include concussions in the story. On the contrary, this movie would not exist in its current form were it not for the concussion problem in football. The NFL of Draft Day is one where the most serious injury is the Browns incumbent quarterback blowing out his knee and missing ten games, and by June is in the best shape of his life. A positive, Dadded-up perspective on the game of football is what the NFL needs more than anything right now, since the league, now in its 95th year, is in very real danger of not lasting much past its centennial. If the current climate, with many parents flatly refusing to let their kids play football—my mom was decades ahead of the curve on this, and was beyond pissed off at me when I wrecked my knee playing tackle football without helmet or pads or permission—continues, more American kids are going to drift into soccer and basketball (baseball is already on the way out), and while that may mean a 2034 World Cup team that makes 2014's Germans look like 1994's Americans it bodes ill for AMURKIN football. Unless the NFL can win the PR wars, and convince more kids to genuflect before Our Dad Who Art In Shoulder Pads.
All of this obscures the fact that, besides being one sort of interesting recurring phone call editing tic away from aesthetically absolute boilerplate conventional Hollywood, Draft Day is a pretty engaging movie. It's nice having Kevin Costner back, and even if by the numbers he should be playing Jennifer Garner's dad rather than her boyfriend, it's fitting that in a movie where one's gut feeling trumps stats that the two should have decent, chaste chemistry as actors. A whole bunch of great character actors are in it and you can't always tell them from the real football people, which is a sign someone's doing something right. All told, it could have been a hell of a lot worse, and being the second best movie ever about a Cleveland sports team (no one's ever fucking with the first Major League, which is a flat-out masterpiece) is something to hang one's helmet on. As is knowing that Costner is going to pull a happy ending out of his ass but not knowing exactly how he's going to do it. As is, frankly, having Costner there to be a reified American flag in the shape of Dad. If you're making an American sports Dad movie, accept no substitutes.