With his delicately photographed mid-region and rubbery pseudo-Midwestern twang, there’s no doubt that Kevin Costner’s performance is the main attraction of Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day, but by film’s end it’s clear that the actor is less interrogating a stereotype than selling it. Costner stars as Sonny Weaver Jr., a beleaguered Cleveland Browns GM who, just a week after the death of his father (the team’s beloved former coach), must decide which players to keep and which to trade. The team’s owner, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), demands that he “make a splash” by picking Heisman Trophy winner Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), even though Weaver thinks the young star’s background stinks. These destiny-forging bottlenecks aside, his co-worker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), has told him she’s pregnant with his child. All of Weaver’s reputations—as a companion, a son, and the leader of a professional sports franchise—are being challenged at once.
Ticking down the hours before the NFL Draft ceremony, Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman’s screenplay works most smoothly when it’s turning the screws against Weaver. None of his arguments with his brain trust, negotiations with other GMs (rendered in bizarre but inoffensive split-screen panel-edits), or botched apologies to Ali threaten to upend the movie’s emotional flow for good, but they pile up nervewrackingly. If the writers over-peppered Weaver’s backroom exchanges with empty Sorkinesque rhetorical quips and nostalgic game trivia deliberately to drive him to the brink of madness, it works. But whenever the odds look truly insurmountable, that’s about when the film reels itself back in with a speech from Costner, as if bitch-slapping both viewers and his colleagues back into giving a damn about what really matters. His scenes with Ali are the closest the film gets to portraying Weaver as a jerk, but she mostly just wants him to go public with their relationship—to restore her dignity as an integral member of his team.
He invariably chokes on decisions like these, until the cruelly obvious third act congeals the film as a wet-eyed monument to Weaver’s particular brand of American manliness, one that values gut instinct, it’s implied, over cold and ruthless calculations. All of the U.S. watches as Weaver unerringly, unflinchingly restructures the Browns without disappointing the fans or betraying his coach, his partners; instead, his picks send shockwaves of goodwill blasting throughout Ohio in repeat waves of sports-fan ecstasy. The script is so passionate about upending Weaver’s battalion of naysayers and giving him the upper hand that Draft Day becomes a sore winner: a suspiciously slick hagiography of a modern-day hero who doesn’t actually exist. Weaver finally goes public in his relationship with Ali, and announces to his mother that they’re having a baby, but these moments don’t register as mature decisions so much as rewards for his team-management skills