Long before he became to sports movies what John Wayne was to Westerns, Kevin Costner twice experienced the pain of being cut. He suffered his first such indignity when he tried out for the Cal State Fullerton baseball team in hopes of earning a scholarship and was among the final players let go.
His second big setback occurred early in his acting career when he was supposed to have a small but central role in the 1983 box-office hit and critically acclaimed film “The Big Chill.” Cast as Alex, Costner originally was scheduled to appear in several flashback scenes to show what his character was like before his suicide and funeral brought together a group of college friends for an unplanned reunion a decade after they had graduated. But the flashbacks were edited out, and all we see of Costner—cruelly enough—are his slashed wrists as a mortician prepares his corpse in the movie’s opening scene.
Fortunately, that scene wasn’t a metaphor for his acting career. Costner would bounce back quite nicely from the dead, earning Oscars for best director and best picture for “Dances With Wolves” and creating some of the most iconic sports characters of all time in films such as “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup.”
Now the man who brought to life Ray Kinsella, Crash Davis and Roy McAvoy returns to the genre that helped define him. This time, he plays Sonny Weaver Jr., a harried general manager of the moribund Cleveland Browns, in the new movie “Draft Day.” Sonny isn’t destined to become an enduring character like Ray, Crash and Roy, and this movie won’t be chiseled onto Costner’s Mount Rushmore, but it’s definitely worth a watch. The man who has also played Wyatt Earp, Robin Hood and Eliot Ness was a believable ballplayer and golfer in previous films, and he is convincing as the general manager of an NFL team, too.
Sonny begins the day with a chance to trade up for the No. 1 pick. Over the course of the next 12 hours, he must contend with his meddling owner, his egomaniacal coach, his cold-as-ice mother and his ex-wife, the unexpected pregnancy of his girlfriend and colleague, and his father’s ghost. So there certainly is no shortage of plotlines here, and the draft day clock adds to the movie’s quick, “CSI”-like pace and sense of suspense. “No one can stop a ticking clock,” Weaver says to his love interest, played by Jennifer Garner, in a calm-before-the-storm moment late in the movie. “But the great ones find a way to slow it down.”
Thanks to Costner’s fine acting and the authenticity of the script (former New York Jets executive Mike Tannenbaum and current New York Post columnist Steve Serby served as consultants), the filmgoer feels the intense pressure as well as the adrenaline rush that NFL decision-makers experience on draft day. In the beginning of the movie, Costner consummates a trade that makes it appear as if he’s been fleeced, but by day’s end, he redeems himself with dexterous wheeling and dealing that reminded me of some of the draft-day machinations of General Manager Bill Polian during the Buffalo Bills glory years of the late 1980s, early 1990s.
Speaking of the Bills, the movie originally was supposed to focus on them and be shot in Orchard Park and Buffalo. But the city of Cleveland snatched the project from Western New York just before production was scheduled to start by offering better financial incentives.
Costner and director Ivan Reitman do throw the Bills a bone in the movie. There is a scene featuring Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon and Marc Honan, senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting, entertaining a trade offer from Costner’s character. Brandon, a St. John Fisher College graduate, actually utters two lines, meaning he is now a card-carrying member of SAG—the Screen Actors Guild—and will be eligible for royalties if the movie generates any. Bills reserve wide receiver Ramses Barden also made the cut. He plays one of the anxious players in the Radio City Music Hall green room on draft day.
It would have been much cooler if the film had been Bills-centric, but, alas, like Super Bowl victories, it was not to be. Chalk up another loss to the cost of doing business in New York.
My wife, who is a movie buff but not a sports fan, enjoyed “Draft Day” and quite astutely equated it to “Moneyball,” in which Brad Pitt starred as the general manager of the Oakland A’s and was able to make a story about statistics intriguing enough to hold the interest of people who didn’t know a baseball from a beach ball. Comic relief in “Draft Day” is provided by an intern (actor Griffin Newman) who always seems to be interrupting Costner and Garner at the most inopportune times. The cast is top-notch, with Denis Leary playing the self-absorbed, Super Bowl-ring- flashing head coach and Frank Langella as the menacing, sunglasses-wearing owner.
Yes, plenty of license was taken, but that’s entertainment. This isn’t a documentary. Draft preparations, in which prospective NFL players are painstakingly tracked for years, had to be condensed into a two-hour movie. So draftniks will need to cut the producer and screenwriters some slack.
The bottom line is that even if you aren’t a sports fan and think of gentle breezes instead of angry pass rushers when you hear the word “draft,” you can still enjoy this movie. Sonny Weaver may lack the charm of predecessors Ray, Crash and Roy, but he’s now an official member of a cinematic lineup of characters who have made Costner the undisputed champ of this genre.
Award-winning author and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak was an extra in “For Love of the Game,” in which Kevin Costner plays aging pitcher Billy Chapel, who tosses a no-hitter in the final game of his career against the New York Yankees. Pitoniak’s acting career lasted all of two days at the original Yankee Stadium, in which he earned a whopping $150. He didn’t have any speaking parts, and his work wound up on the cutting-room floor.
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