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All-star performances from rookies, veterans give football flick its power

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You don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate Kevin Costner's cycle of baseball movies -- Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game -- for the way they illuminate the inner workings, the dynamics and the history of the sport.

Draft Day, Costner's first football movie, attempts to do all that outside the context of the game itself. There will be no climactic touchdowns or field goals. The focus is on the front office, specifically the white shirts managing the Cleveland Browns, a team as downtrodden and disreputable as, well, Cleveland.

Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the team's general manager and the man under the gun to deliver "a big splash" via a directive of team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), a water-park magnate.

He does that, negotiating with Seattle Seahawks management for their first-round draft pick -- a fresh, hotshot quarterback -- whose skills and character will be subject to insane scrutiny in the lead-up to the draft itself.

One recalls the incredible pressure Costner's character endured while attempting to pitch a perfect game in For Love of the Game. That seems like a weekend in Vermont compared to Sonny's issues in the Cleveland front office. In addition to coping with the death of his father, a coach, the week before, Sonny is distracted by:

  • His girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), the team's salary-cap manager, has announced she is pregnant, and the notion of keeping their relationship secret is not going to be viable much longer.
  • His mom (Ellen Burstyn) is curiously eager to spread her husband's ashes over the practice field that bears his name... during the draft.
  • Browns coach Penn (Denis Leary) is a guy prone to waving his Super Bowl ring under everyone's noses and resorting to bad behaviour to demand input into the draft picks.
  • Star linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), eager to carve out a lucrative spot for himself in the draft, takes to unwise tweeting that's critical of the GM.

For a movie with not a lot of actual football, director Ivan Reitman, working from a script by rookies Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, does manage to keep the narrative ball aloft handily. It's largely a matter of savvy casting, with Boseman and Leary standing out as, respectively, a player with a lot of heart and a coach with practically none.

Costner, making an inexplicable but not unwelcome return to starring roles, holds the centre here doing what he does best: the dry, exasperated Everyman trying to do the right thing under ever-increasing pushback.

Costner was always at his best in sports movies -- certainly more so than post-apocalypse movies. Now that he has reached an age where it's unlikely he'll take to the playing field again, he still manages to use his rock-solid gravitas to contribute a clinical understanding of the madness that is professional sports.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2014 D1

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