Saturday, 4 October 2014

DRAFT DAY: KEVIN COSTNER FINALLY FANCIES FOOTBALL


In a low-key kind of way, Kevin Costner has become to sports movies what Clint Eastwood was the westerns: the go-to guy who can change with the generations. Costner's been a baseball player (three times), a golfer, a cyclist, and a boxing fan (OK I'm stretching things a bit). Now, after a gap of 15 years, which is a decade and a half in sports terms, Costner is back in Draft Day, playing Sonny Parker, general manager of an American football team, the (real life NFL team) Cleveland Browns. We know for a fact this means trouble, because most of us have seen the real life Cleveland Indians baseball team embrace Charlie Sheen and Wesley Snipes in Major League! And this is football, and football is what Cleveland and Ohio are all about.

But Sonny has problems. He's the general manager, but his father was once the Browns' legendary coach, and Sonny fired him. The new coach (Dennis Leary) is an obnoxious ball of tightly-wound ego, making you wonder why Sonny hired him. The team is coming off a losing season during which they lost their star quarterback to a serious injury, and the bad finish which has earned them the number seven pick in the annual NFL draft of college football stars. Sonny has ideas about who he wants to choose with that pick, but Coach Penn has his own ideas, and even worse, Anthony Molina, the team's owner (Frank Langella) wants him to 'make a splash' with the fans, and trade up in the draft to get the nation's biggest college star, quarterback Bo Callahan.

As if that weren't enough, Sonny's girlfriend has just told him she's pregnant. They've been keeping the relationship secret because she also works for the Browns, controlling their salary cap. And in the final touch, Sonny's mother wants to scatter his father's ashes on the team's practice field. On draft day.

That's the set-up for a behind-the-scenes look at American football that works as a cross between Moneyball and Jerry Maguire. And it does work a bit, especially when you consider there isn't actually any scene of football in the movie, apart from when Costner or the scouts examine game film of the prospects they're arguing about. This means you don't have to be fully versed in the game itself, though the concept of the draft, the use of draft picks, and even of trades of players, might be a challenge for some of the British audience. That's not because the movie doesn't explain, but because it often relies on American commentators to explain and embellish what's happening, and their faces won't mean much to the British audience, and their explanations do assume knowledge.

But this isn't rocket science we're talking about, and the concepts are pretty clear, certainly no fuzzier than any of the spate of recent films about financial chicanery on Wall Street. If you can understand shorting sub-prime mortgages, you ought to be able to follow trading three future first-round picks for this year's first pick overall. If you do understand the game well, you'll have to cut the film-makers a little slack; a couple of the deals simply wouldn't get made without some further tweaking, but this is Hollywood, not Cleveland.

And the roots of Costner's dilemma go back to more basic questions of character, both his and the prospects he's evaluating. He has doubts about Callahan which no one else shares. Which runs parallel to the decision he has to make over his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner). This may be the part of the film which is actually harder to understand. Sonny's obviously a successful mature man. Ali works in football. She tells the coach that 'I am a Cleveland girl and I am football'. She loves football. And she's Jennifer Garner. Costner's only dilemma ought to be whether or not he should be having her babies.

The movie's well done, keeping the action moving, and making it look real, not least because it features real teams, NFL people, and TV announcers walking around. Of course we know the Seattle Seahawks won the last Super Bowl; they didn't finish last and have the first overall draft pick. Leary didn't really convince me as a football coach (he looks more like a quality control assistant) but Langella is brilliant as the owner, used to getting his way and dominant especially when he's in the same room as Commissioner Roger Goodell (playing himself). Langella's clearly relishing the role. There's an equally brilliant brittle turn by Ellen Burstyn as Sonny's mother: and when the twist that explains a lot of Sonny's insecurity is revealed it helps explain a lot. Football fans will recognise Arian Foster as one of the college players; Terry Crews (last seen on Newsroom as Jeff Daniels' bodyguard) plays his father, an ex-Browns star. Crews played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe, and I remember interviewing him: that's a pretty neat career arc in just 20 years.

But the film not only feels it has to over-explain, it then goes on to summarize and restate the obvious. Over and over again. Repeatedly. They take one good idea, sprinkle a little fairy dust on it, believe in themselves, and make it into a movie. That sort of thing. Of course real announcers would be a little less moronic, a little more analytical, and, what? these ARE real announcers. Oh no.

But the film rests with Costner. His seriousness helps it stay anchored, even when director Ivan Reitman seems to be more concerned with comedy, or split screen techniques just for their own sake. The film needs that stolid sense that Costner projects. I compared him to Clint Eastwood at the top of this piece, but that was just on subjects of films (and really Wesley Snipes may be running Costner neck and neck on sports movies). The classic actor whom Costner resembles most is Gary Cooper—strong and silent, able to play sensitive, and occasionally funny when playing off that wooden exterior (think of Cooper in Ball Of Fire or Costner in The Bodyguard). Cooper's Pride Of The Yankees is Costner's Field Of Dreams. Open Range is Costner's High Noon. Cooper's Sgt. York is Costner's Dances With Wolves; Court Martial Of Billy Mitchell is JFK, Morocco is No Way Out and so on. Costner may wrestle with his conscience in most movies, but the match is almost always tilted one way.

If you're a football fan you'll enjoy draft day, and if you're not the most knowledgeable fan you might pick up a little bit about how the business works. If you're not a fan, you'll still able to follow the twists, and if you liked the gushy bits of Jerry Maguire, Jennifer Garner won't disappoint you. Draft Day is worth an evening, whether in football season or not.
Draft Day opened on release Friday 3 October, and is also available for download.

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