When you finish seeing a movie like Draft Day—the NFL’s current foray into what might be called failed experimental cinema—you ask yourself a lot of questions, most of which start with why. Why did I just watch this? Why did people think to make this, and why didn’t other people stop them? Draft Day is one of the dumbest movies about sports ever made because it’s one of the dumbest ideas for a movie about sports that anyone has ever had, a fictional film about pro football that isn’t even actually about football. And yet it’s a movie in which National Football League commissioner and designated shield-protector Roger Goodell appears on screen, as himself, several times; he’s even memorized lines. Why did the NFL—America’s most obsessively messaged and image-conscious sports league—allow this catastrophe to happen?
I’ll try to recount the plot of Draft Day without “spoiling” the movie, which, trust me, is a hilarious thing to write. Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., embattled general manager of the Cleveland Browns. (Side note: Can we declare a moratorium on sports-related entertainments made at the expense of Cleveland teams? Clevelanders are good people who’ve suffered enough.) Early in the movie Sonny Weaver Jr. acquires the first pick in the NFL draft via a trade on the morning of the draft itself. Sonny Weaver Jr. spends the rest of the film trying to decide what to do with the pick. At the end of the movie he does something with it, and also learns about the importance of family, wouldn’t you know—the film’s script treats the “Jr.” at the end of a character’s name like it’s Chekhov’s gun.
And that’s pretty much it. There are other characters wandering around, but they’re just props. Jennifer Garner plays Weaver’s secret girlfriend, who is secretly pregnant but also super supportive and a salary-cap genius—what a catch! (Draft Day’s gender politics are close to psychotic.) Sean Combs plays an agent, in a performance that pulls off the miraculous feat of making me wish he’d stick to rapping. Frank Langella sleepwalks through the movie as the team’s owner, and I’m not sure that’s a figurative assessment: He wears sunglasses for the entire film. Countless real-life football and media luminaries appear on screen as themselves, because otherwise everything just described wouldn’t be believable.
Draft Day is helmed by veteran director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Dave), who to his credit seems aggressively disinterested in the material at hand. The “filmmaking” here consists of making sure the camera is pointed at people who are explaining the movie’s plot to one another, preferably while they are wearing logos and standing in front of more logos. “This city deserves a championship, and I’m the guy to deliver it!” declares one character to his co-worker. At one point an assistant refers to “your star wide receiver, Andre Bell” in conversation with Sonny Weaver, seemingly explaining to the GM who a player on his own team is. Normally this would just be a clumsy way of introducing a character, except that “Andre Bell” isn’t even in the film and never comes up again. He exists only to be mentioned, pointlessly.
But at least these howlers are spoken by actors who are actually conversing in person. An absolutely insane amount of Draft Day unfolds over the telephone. To get around this fundamental cinematic flaw, the film employs a gimmicky split-screen device in which characters thousands of miles away from each other appear to stroll in and out of each other’s shots. It’s a lazy and chintzy touch that only highlights the fraudulence of the interactions. But how else are you supposed to make a 110-minute movie about people talking on the phone? Sometimes the most obvious answer is the best one: You don’t.
Draft Day seems wrought from Moneyball, a pretty good film based on a great book that, next to Draft Day, looks like The Rules of the Game. Moneyball garnered box office receipts and award nominations and clearly convinced someone that there’s an appetite for Hollywood entertainments about the office politics of pro sports franchises. But Moneyball is based on things that actually happened. It’s also an intellectual history, a movie about ideas and people who have them. Draft Day, on the other hand, is a proudly anti-intellectual film that worships a world in which real men who hate nerds and love grit and heart and strong jawlines are right. Draft Day is ostensibly a movie about futures—after all, what are draft days if not feasts of speculative optimism—that’s terrified of progress. One of the film’s running “gags” involves an emasculated assistant who wears glasses and uses a computer and as such is subject to constant humiliations.
It says a lot about the forces responsible for Draft Day that this is the only character the film can bring itself to be cruel to. Everyone else starts and ends this movie as a good guy. Sonny Weaver is ambivalent about fatherhood, but that’s only because he cares about football so much, don’t you understand? The mother-to-be of his child does. There’s disagreement between Weaver and his blustery head coach (Denis Leary), but it’s really just a dust-up between two winners who want to win. There’s a quarterback prospect who might not be all he’s cracked up to be, except we never find out, and on second thought, he’s probably fine.
This general lack of conflict is a strange problem for a film to have, and it’s born of the fact that Draft Day isn’t so much a movie as a movielike infomercial for the kinder, gentler NFL. No one in Draft Day can be bad because no one in football can be bad. In the wake of labor strife, off-field scandals, and the ongoing CTE crisis, the NFL is doubling down on its fantasy of paternalism, and Draft Day is that fantasy’s porn film. Here is a vision of sports where rich men in expensive suits and branded apparel always have everyone’s best interests at heart. A middle-aged white man lectures a young (and as-yet-unpaid) black man on the evils of speaking his mind on Twitter, and we’re expected to nod along sagely. Family is everything, and everything is family-friendly: In a behind-the-scenes movie about pro football, the word fuck is uttered once, as a climactic applause line.
The NFL is in an awkward place right now, the most popular kid in school whom everyone’s starting to hate, and the kid knows it. So we’ve ended up with a movie about professional football that can barely bring itself to show the sport but instead exists solely to let us know how swell the people profiting from it are. Draft Day isn’t shield polish so much as a shield itself, and the mere fact that it exists is so desperate and unseemly that it almost makes me sympathetic to Goodell and his bumbling megalith. After all, when all’s said and done, I like football. But I like movies, too, and finally we’ve found our conflict.