Rewatching "Draft Day," The Only Place The Browns Enjoy A Hollywood Ending
Kevin Costner's NFL front office opus "Draft Day" is alternately weird, discordant, and improbable—but then again, the real-life Cleveland Browns finally getting their shit together would be the same.
This has been a terrible year for many people, and for many reasons. Even if you root for Cleveland sports teams—who both overcame and blew 3-1 leads in the NBA Finals and World Series, respectively—it was still a pitiable stretch. That's entirely due to the Browns.
Cleveland's pro football team team was Peak 2016. Low, sad expectations were set going in, and they were not reached. In fact, it wasn't even close. The Browns will almost certainly secure the top pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, the third time that has happened since the franchise reformed in 1999. Coupled with the top 10 pick they received earlier this year so the Philadelphia Eagles could select Carson Wentz, the franchise has a great chance at screwing up two first-round choices in a single year—as they did in 2012 and 2014, and half-did in 2007, when they picked Joe Thomas but also Brady freaking Quinn.
However, there is a scenario, implausible and improbable as it sounds, in which the Browns finally get their shit together, and solve all of the problems they desperately need to address. This fever dream is laid out in a movie, released less than three years ago but already wildly out of date, wherein the Sir Laurence Olivier of sports movies loses a bunch of second-round picks but gains back his soul. That scenario, and that movie, is Ivan Reitman's Draft Day.
Kevin Costner is Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver, Jr., but you can just call him Draftday, as I do. Our protagonist has basically won What Could Possibly Happen On A Single Day Bingo, in that he's dealing with the recent passing of his father, a remarkable man who somehow had a son born in 1955 and was an NFL head coach into the 2010s; the stress of his girlfriend/co-worker Ali (Jennifer Garner)'s pregnancy; and the pressures of making a mediocre team *shudders* great again.
Draft Day takes the long route in getting to No. 1, in that we are stuck in an alternate universe where the contemporary Seattle Seahawks are absolutely terrible and your Cleveland Browns have reached the unattainable goal of being only the seventh-worst team in the NFL. Sonny Draftday panics, sending three first-round picks to Seattle in order to get the franchise player and championship Cleveland desperately wants. It's no spoiler to say that because Costner is Draftday, he ultimately outsmarts the Seahawks' execs and gets bonus points for screwing over Jacksonville's cocky Boy GM, because not even Hollywood respects the Jags. And in pleasing both his coach and current quarterback, Kevin "Draftday" Costner succeeds in keeping both Denis Leary and one of the lesser Supermans happy.
There are three possible candidates for Draftday's top pick: Heisman-winning quarterback and Obvious Choice Bo Callahan (Josh Pence); Son Of Fictional Team Legend Terry Crews running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster); and defensive juggernaut/loving uncle/assault defendant Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman). Callahan seems to have it all, but Ali literally says "they said the same thing about Ryan Leaf," and, come to think of it, Bo didn't have any of his teammates at his birthday party, and he either stole a hundred dollar bill taped to Seattle's playbook or didn't read the playbook to begin with. Either way, Bo is a whiny baby who freaks out after being passed up by Cleveland at No. 1 and has to be consoled by his agent, who is played by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Meanwhile, Mack Daddy is considered to have "character issues," despite this movie taking place in a universe where leaving someone in the hospital after an assault is somehow not a felony provided your heart is in the right place.
Before the movie even begins, we get Chris Berman rhapsodizing about the glory that is—wait for it—Draft Day, and you kind of want the entire film to be Boomer narrating Costner's life: cheeky nicknames for everyone, nobody circles the wagons like his Uber driver, etc. Draft Day relies quite a bit on Sports Media As Exposition, from Jon Gruden setting up Costner's daddy issues to Deion Sanders earnestly calling an assault that landed someone in the frigging hospital "a skirmish." This feeds the fast pace and scattered tone of Draft Day, and makes you wish the film was made a decade ago, so a bunch of guys screaming "JACKED UP" would pepper the exposition.
Draft Day received mixed-to-positive reviews when it was released, but the movie has aged almost as well as the Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark joke Frank Langella utters at one point. We know now more than ever about what football can do to the human brain and the extent to which the NFL covered this information up; any sense that the league is a just and competent moral entity, let alone arbiter, has been thrown out the window. Moreover, each NFL Draft since 2004 has been held outside of New York City, with Philadelphia about to take its turn transforming its well-curated public spaces into a "Draft Town." A movie called Draft Town sounds like a downbeat story about a once-great institution poisoned by corruption and exposed for what it always was, and would be the movie Concussion should have been.
A stacked bench of character actors cycles through Draft Day, from Sam Elliot as Bo Callahan's college coach to Leary as the George Seifert of football movie NFL coaches. Ellen Burstyn and Rosanna Arquette also make cameos as Draftday's mother and ex-wife, respectively. I marked out when Dave co-stars Langella and Kevin Dunn shared a scene or two in the way Star Wars nerds did when [certain characters] appeared in Rogue One: "You can't draft the President." "He's not the President, he's an ordinary person. I can draft an ordinary person."
Draft Day doesn't work as a movie, so much as it works as a vibe: a competent older white male can outsmart himself and still land on his feet. In other, less problematic respects, Draft Day succeeds best when it borders on self-parody, or even camp. The self-serious tone of a For Love Of The Game is not present, and in its place is a bunch of shit that is really weird when taken out of context, like when Langella punctuates his message of "making a splash" by literally talking in front of a water slide, or Costner recalling the "back and to the left" scene from JFK while analyzing game film, or the funeral in the middle of the practice field on the front office's busiest day of the year, because when and where else would you hold one?
Yet for all the craziness, Draft Day successfully pulls you into its alternate world. It's a world in which secrets no longer mean anything, where men in their 30s are acting like 20-somethings, and where everyone is constantly unsure as to whether they have outsmarted themselves. This is not dissimilar to the Roger Goodell-era National Football League, and certainly akin to the galactic clusterfuck that is the post-1999 Browns. Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, GM Sashi Brown, and "chief strategy officer" Paul DePodesta have a chance to make a real-world splash come April, and unless they actually discuss this issue in front of a water slide, their choices will most likely disappoint. Draft Day at least gives sad Browns fans hope for a Hollywood ending—convoluted hope, perhaps, but no less realistic than blaming a homeless guy when you reached for Johnny Manziel. For that alone, it's a film worth revisiting.
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