*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman
screenplay by Rajiv Joseph & Scott Rothman
directed by Ivan Reitman
by Walter Chaw The first Broncos game I remember watching was on the couch with my father. October 16, 1977. I was four. They were playing the Oakland Raiders--hated rivals, I'd come to understand--and featured players from my eternal morning like Craig Morton, Haven Moses (who I had the pleasure of sharing a couple pitchers and a few dozen hot wings with a decade ago), Riley Odoms, Louis Wright, and Otis Armstrong. I have all of their signatures on an old ball, gathering dust on a bookshelf in my office. I have all of their rookie cards in little plastic holders. Since that first game, I've seen every one in its entirety save four, most of them in real time. (I was in the hospital for some reason or other for three of those.) When the Broncos won their first Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers in 1998, I cried like a baby and worried for hours afterwards that there had been some mistake--that the universe could take it all away.
A native Coloradan, I love all my state's sports teams, but like most native Coloradans, it's the Broncos that have a primal hold on me. If I were in a Barthes state of mind, I'd wax philosophic about why gladiatorial contests bond city-states together in a "In the Hills, the Cities" symbiotic, totemic tension. How the stadiums of today were the stadia of antiquity. Something about American football for Americans nourishes. What it nourishes is a question for someone else, mostly--or for me in the small hours, or in the moments immediately following a player's devastating injury, or when another mug shot for another unpardonable social offense crops up. The only thing I really watch on television is sporting events, and I watch a lot of them. They're often the background noise to my writing; I can sleep during a Rockies game (the only defense) and still follow every ball and strike; I had season tickets for the Nuggets during the years they won around eleven games. I'm not balanced to whatever degree I'm balanced without sports.
I approached Ivan Reitman's Draft Day with a mixture of excitement and caution. I genuinely like Kevin Costner when he plays an athlete or a cowboy (or a gill-man), not so much when he plays someone with initials after his name that aren't "LHP." In Draft Day, as a GM for the Cleveland Browns (snicker), his character Sonny is saddled with his late, legendary father's legacy and the clearly impossible challenge of making the Browns something other than a sadsack franchise with a history of crushing defeats and ignoble defections. He is, in other words, playing someone who used to be a jock (which is good) and is now a powerful decision-making executive (which is not). It's the less-funny version of Major League, except the Indians actually got better. It opens with Sonny having some issues with girlfriend and employee Ali (Jennifer Garner), who's chosen the day of the NFL draft to tell him she's pregnant with his bastard. Sonny, it seems, has commitment issues, is mourning the recent death of his father, and is working for the Browns, making him the saddest man on Earth. Luckily, he trades away his team's entire future for the #1 pick, a pretty-boy quarterback with badly-disguised personality issues (Josh Pence). Will Sonny make the right decision to squander that pick on a noble black kid (Chadwick Boseman) supporting the orphaned kids of his dead sister? No fair peeking.
There's maybe a tough-minded film in Draft Day somewhere, buried in there among all the melodrama and schmaltz. It's a football movie that isn't about institutional racism, the ethics of supporting a sport with a legacy of hiding the traumatic damage caused to its athletes--one that is essentially the sanctification of coercing the undereducated and underprivileged to perform in bloodsport for the ruling majority. It's a football film that doesn't touch the corruption, the commodification, the exploitation--how a ridiculous percentage of the league's highly-paid athletes are bankrupt or dead within years of completing their duty, or why so many of them end up in prison or beating their wives or shooting themselves in the chest when their brains start rattling around in their skulls too hard and too often. I love football, I deeply love it, it's essential to who I am, but I don't love that I love it. Draft Day is a movie about a compulsive gambler who has his cakes and eats them, too. It's a fairytale told with the full cooperation of the NFL, to the extent that reviled Commissioner Roger Goodall makes a self-serving cameo. It's a fantasy that football in the United States isn't as complex and divisive a thing as the NRA and doesn't say the same things about how we clothe ourselves in trailing clouds of paranoia, power-plays, and patriotic glory. This is a dangerous slice of propaganda that actually has the temerity to end with a family unit walking arm-in-arm into a rosy sunset. Draft Day is actually quite despicable.
It's not bad because it's not about anything that makes football interesting (indeed, by avoiding all that, it comments on it); it's bad because it's a manipulative bit of fluff in the absentee-dad subgenre. Draft Day has the same plot as Elf, essentially, except that it isn't funny or warm. It's machine-tooled and targeted at the lizard part of my brain that automatically cries whenever I see John Elway's "helicopter" play. It's football porn, the family version of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, which is a little like saying it's the family version of exploitation: a cultural stealth missile that thankfully not many people bothered to see. I don't think American football translates into cinema. I used to love Burt Reynolds's The Longest Yard and the climax of MASH, only to find the game elements in them as I grew older to be shoddily edited and too clearly allegory enslaved to the greater storyline. Whatever it is about football that seduces, that gets us when we're young and frankly only has meaning for us now as a hardline drug, the near-criminal (really "otherwise-criminal") violence and insane self-sacrifice comprise the melodrama that drives the game. Draft Day is just a badly-conceived fantasy about an impossible blockbuster deal, a series of blunders, and then a happy ending for everyone involved: the grieving hero, the steadfast heroine, the pasty villain of privilege, the super-duper-magic Negro. It's the fantasy the NFL itself wants to paint--Top Gun for football, as it were--and I've already forgotten that I've seen it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shot digitally, Draft Day lands on Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that is at once predictably flawless and without anything like texture or personality. Its glossiness might serve the preferred perception of the sport as product--and while it's possible, maybe even elegant, to poeticize the brutal, it's irresponsible to polish it to this high a gloss. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is likewise "perfect" and...what's the word? Inflectionless. If "expensive" were a proper adjective for A/V, the best way to describe the technical aspects of Draft Day would be to say that it looks and sounds expensive.
The extraordinarily bloated "On the Clock: The Making of Draft Day" (60 mins., HD) is standard quasi-promotional fare discussing the jitters, the awe-inspiring scope of the NFL spectacle, and the challenge of doing a film about the most popular vice in American culture. "Welcome to Primetime" (10 mins., HD) is a brief and mostly-useless look at the NFL draft and how it works. It presumes, I guess, that one will have no better insight into that after the movie proper (and one will not). Last among the major video-based extras is a 9-minute portion of deleted scenes that expand Rosanna Arquette's role as the jilted wife. Meanwhile, a feature-length commentary with co-writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman is empty calories, talking about how cool it is that their screenplay got produced, about bets taken on set as to how far Costner could throw a football (far), and how cool it is when Costner punches you in the chest. Draft Day's trailer rounds out the Summit platter, which includes DVD and Digital copies of the film.