Judging from the massive television audiences that tune in for college and NFL football, you might think that football movies would be an easy sell at the American box office. They’re not — and making matters worse, fans who pay to see football in the theater often have to settle for fictional teams, like the Miami Sharks and the North Dallas Bulls, because the NFL doesn’t often play ball with Hollywood.
So give Draft Day credit. It not only got league permission — with sports all-star Kevin Costner playing the embattled general-manager of the downtrodden Cleveland Browns — but the NFL endorsed the film wholeheartedly, with game footage, access, and even a cameo from its commissioner. This is a total NFL joint, and it looks as slick as a Steve Sabol production.
Costner’s Sonny Weaver has never had a draft day like this one. His boss (Frank Langella) wants him to trade up and pick a franchise quarterback with the No. 1 pick, his arrogant coach (Denis Leary) wants a running back, his father — who’d been the Browns’ legendary coach — recently died, and he’s just learned that his beautiful co-worker (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant with his first child. Sonny Weaver, you are now on the clock. In one day, he has to save the franchise, his job, and his reputation. “That’s a lot of melodramatic balls to keep in the air — probably one too many — but Costner’s greatest strength as an actor is making us feel the accumulated weight crushing down on his character,” says EW’s Chris Nashawaty. “He shows us Sonny’s desperation without ever letting him lose his cool.”
Ellen Burstyn plays Sonny’s mother, who decides draft day is the perfect day to bring his father’s ashes to the Browns’ practice facility, 42‘s Chadwick Boseman stars as one of the college stars on Sonny’s radar, and ESPN’s Chris Berman is his bloviating self, along with several other ESPN and NFL Network talking heads.
Read Nashawaty’s entire review, as well as a round-up of other notable critics, below.
Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly)
“What makes Draft Day more rousing and interesting than you’d expect is the subtext that Sonny’s decision is ultimately beside the point. Yes, he kicks the tires on all of these promising players, assessing their character. But the real character being tested is his own — his ability to drown out all of the white noise and listen to his own gambler’s instincts.”
Scott Bowles (USA Today)
“Not since 2004’s Friday Night Lights has a feature film captured football frenzy so authentically: Fans call for Sonny’s firing by writing on dirty windows; disc jockeys demand his expulsion; even his mother (Burstyn) offers trade advice. But the film nearly stumbles at the goal line.”
Stephen Whitty (Newark Star-Ledger)
“Even though the movie is probably going to be even more fun for folks who love the gridiron, it’s not really about the game. It’s about gamesmanship. About judging character, fast. And yes, about grown sons, and father’s shadows. Also about some smart filmmaking.”
A.O. Scott (New York Times)
“Mr. Costner revels in his undiminished powers of persuasion. … There is no real difference between what this movie is about and what it displays: an aging professional doing his job. Like his character, Sonny Weaver Jr., Mr. Costner is very good at his, though sometimes apt to be underestimated.”
Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Costner’s thoughtful approach not only gives Sonny an extra dimension as a character but hints at unspoken past issues involving his tough father and his ex-wife that likely made it hard for him to grow up and come into his own without complexes. It’s a very welcome performance.”
Kimberley Jones (Austin Chronicle)
“And what of the god of baseball movies? He could still be folksy, cantankerous, an underdog. But those mischievous looks of yesteryear would be replaced by an expression of constant constipation.”
Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)
“As for Jennifer Garner, she’s the woman in it, which means she’s pregnant. … It’s not much of a role, but she’s perfectly nice in it. Perhaps someday someone will give Garner a chance to be something other than perfectly nice.”
Stephanie Merry (Washington Post)
“If the pair generated some sparks, these [supply-closet] exchanges might be more thrilling. Instead the scenes just highlight how miscast the actors are. Costner’s delivery is flat and lacks energy. Garner has done some exceptional work in the past, but can’t seem to land the sassy one-liners that Ali is supposed to deliver.”
Scott Foundas (Variety)
“Reitman and d.p. Eric Steelberg draw on an inventive split-screen technique that allows us to see both sides of each [phone] conversation at once, but in constantly shifting proportions and arrangements. It’s the sort of gimmick that might easily have proved distracting if overused, but which Reitman keeps nicely in check…”
Peter Keough (Boston Globe)
“Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman’s script has all the spark and originality of a postgame player interview — not even a thespian like Langella can do much with lines like ‘Make a splash. Fans like to get wet.'”
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (The A.V. Club)
“Despite its clunkiness, Draft Day ends up being funny — and at times even compelling — thanks to director Ivan Reitman’s handling of a large cast of ringers and character actors, including Sam Elliott, Pat Healy, Terry Crews, and Ellen Burstyn.”
Length: 109 minutes
Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary