30 for 30: Seau

Release: Friday, September 21, 2018 (ESPN)

→ESPN

Directed by: Kirby Bradley

When ESPN Films announced they would be making a documentary about Junior Seau, the megastar linebacker who played for over a decade for the San Diego Chargers and who tragically took his own life in 2012, I figured pretty much right then and there it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to watch. Boy I hate being right sometimes.

I have no particular allegiance to west coast football. Maybe the Seattle Seahawks, but then that was when it was the Legion of Boom, when Pete Carroll, that wily old dog, still had in his bag of tricks Richard Sherman, Cam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and one or two other defensive monsters. I don’t subscribe to the 49ers and I’m certainly no diehard Raiders supporter. I am even less knowledgeable about the San Diego Chargers and, embarrassingly, Seau’s time there — what he meant to his teammates, the organization. He was a citywide icon whose brutal style of play betrayed his warm personality. Yet I had only ever affiliated him with the New England Patriots. That image of him facedown on the turf in agonizing playoff defeat is the most vivid one I have of him as a player.

Seau is a moving tribute to the man that gave me a better idea of his character, both on and off the gridiron. It addresses the challenges he faced in his personal life, coming from a large Samoan family whose lofty expectations, especially those of his father, and financial strife instilled in him a sense of responsibility from a very young age. The fifth child born to Tiaina Sr, a rubber factory worker and custodian, and Luisa Maugu Seau, who worked at a commissary in SoCal as well as a laundromat, Junior, naturally gifted as he was, worked relentlessly to develop himself into a pro-caliber player, ultimately going fifth overall in the 1990 Draft. Blending together blistering highlight reels with emotionally charged interviews with family (his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, along with his sons who have the VERY difficult task of reading to camera a few select entries from their father’s diary, which grows increasingly disturbing as time goes on), along with friends and former teammates, director Kirby Bradley delicately constructs a celebration of a life that must necessarily also look at the darker side of the beloved defensive linesman, attempting to make sense out of what happened to him in his post-playing days.

Only in the aftermath was it revealed one of the most indomitable spirits the NFL had seen in years had been suffering from a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which, once-upon-a-time, went by the somewhat less threatening name Punch Drunk Syndrome. The same disease riddling the domes of other former football greats who had either taken their own lives or had passed from other causes only for it to be discovered in them as well. At the time it was really only associated with boxers, but of course CTE doesn’t discriminate, for the cruelly sluggish, subtle incipience of the symptoms (forgetfulness at first, drastic personality/behavioral changes later) is incurred by repeated blows to the head, something that may be pronounced in football and boxing but is absolutely not limited to those arenas. In 2016 BMX bike rider Dave Mirra took his own life, without warning, after a lengthy career in which he sustained countless concussions. As of this writing he is the first known action sports star to have developed CTE.

What Seau isn’t — and somewhat surprisingly given its unique position what with the subject being both alarmingly young (he was only 43) and one of, if not the highest profile player thus far to have died as a result of CTE — is a savage condemnation of the league and in particular Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose lack of response to the mounting statistics linking football with brain damage surpasses naivety to the point of bordering on inhumanity. Perhaps positivity outweighing negativity is apropos for its subject, an upbeat teammate, devoted husband and energetic father who had time for everyone and then some.

The slow slide towards the inevitable is what makes this 30 for 30 a particularly disturbing account. It isn’t simply that we know the ending already; it’s all the little gory details of a life coming undone at the seams that is just horrifying to watch. News reports of domestic violence and of an inexplicable vehicular incident are brought back up, and for what seems like an eternity Seau feels punishing in its own inability to explain. To Bradley’s credit he intentionally does this, wisely sidestepping controversy brought on by forcing theories or summarily dismissing all behavior as a direct result of vicious football hits. This is a complicated story with a number of dynamics at play, both personal and circumstantial — new and unfamiliar stresses bearing weight on his later years, as well as the loneliness of his struggle, his inability to reconcile not just being a famous football player and deep down knowing he needed help, but specifically being Junior Seau — someone who could not say no to helping someone else in need.

In the end though, for as rough as the going gets, Seau educated me and the sheer volume of praise he receives from both his contemporaries and his former teammates (then-Chargers QB Drew Brees and retired defensive linesman Marcellus Wiley) proves that his sickness never stood a chance of actually being the thing that would come to define him. There is a beautiful scene at the end where scores of fans take to the cerulean waters of the San Diego coast, where Seau often went to surf and to be at peace, and the prevailing sentiment here is undeniably one of profound love. That goes a long way in off-setting the waves of misery we must endure along the way.

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“Buddyyyyyyyy!”

Recommendation: Seau is an emotional ride that will most immediately attract the attention of the Chargers faithful and passionate football fans on a broader scale, but I think this film also does a great job of telling the tragedy of Junior Seau from a fundamentally human perspective.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 90 mins.

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30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

30-for-30-small-potatoes-movie-poster

Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

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the-donald

Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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30-for-30: The ’85 Bears

'The 85 Bears' movie poster

Release: Thursday, February 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jason Hehir 

There will never be another quite like the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. Or their offense. Or their coach(es). Or their cult of personality. If you’re from the area you probably don’t need the reminding, but Jason Hehir’s surprisingly moving documentary makes it abundantly clear to the outside observer that times have certainly changed.

Today fans are expected to embrace quarterback Jay Cutler, a Vanderbilt alum who looks like he might cry at any given moment. Sure, the guy’s built Ford tough but I’m convinced neither he nor the cast that surrounds him is as entertaining as the freak show the mid-80s spawned. Granted, Cutler is also no Doug Flutie. Under the thumb of head coach Mike Ditka and his defensive coordinator, the late Buddy Ryan, the Bears were less of a sports team than they were a hit squad powered by a trifecta of brute athleticism, mental tenacity and celebrity swagger. There was no pretense about them; they were the real deal, asserting their dominance throughout an historic regular season campaign and an even scarier post-season run that netted the great city of Chicago its first and so far only Superbowl victory.

The ’85 Bears, narrated by Vince Vaughn (who also executive-produced), is a love letter to those glory days, gathering together the surviving members of the team (may Sweetness rest in peace) for a candid chat about how they viewed themselves as young, emerging stars as well as their thoughts on the legacy they ultimately shaped. There’s a lot of the banter and inside joking that one expects from former players reliving their heyday — the way Hehir’s able to cozy up to a group of guys who have never seemed so vulnerable is a major factor in the film’s appeal — but undoubtedly one of the most intriguing aspects is the running discussion about the Bears’ unique coaching situation. What happens when you have two alpha males jockeying for a position of authority?

One would naturally assume nothing but dysfunction. In this case you’d assume incorrectly. In this case you get the formula for establishing a championship caliber team. And yeah, okay, a little dysfunction as well. Ditka vs. Ryan: a heavyweight bout, a battle of contrasts forged out of the former’s gruff, urban machismo and the latter’s rural southern roots, one that resulted in an oft-icy tension between the two on and off the field. Players recall Ditka becoming irked by Ryan’s insistence that weekly practices assume the same level of physical intensity actual games demanded. Ditka didn’t deem it necessary for players to sustain injuries during practice, a point of view that is as understandable as Ryan’s, who believed the only way to victory is through militaristic discipline and routine. (After all, his ’76 – ’77 Minnesota Vikings didn’t earn the nickname ‘Purple People Eaters’ because they stood around crocheting during scrimmages.)

The ’85 Bears feels more like a family reunion than a sports documentary. Relationships trump all, be they ones characterized by conflicting egotism or remembered for their controversial nature. If you’ve never met Jim MacMahon, the successor to Walter Payton (according to some, the greatest Bear that ever lived) and a BYU alum, wait until you get a load of him here. MacMahon’s infamous appearances at press conferences with a beer in hand or his off-hand comments about how people in New Orleans are all ugly and dumb may have earned him a certain reputation, but his contributions on the field spoke for themselves . . . even if his habit of improvising plays routinely frustrated Ditka.

Then of course there’s Mike Singletary, who now finds himself shouldering assistant coaching duties for the recently relocated Los Angeles Rams. Many of the interviews are information-dense and insightful enough on their own but it’s Singletary’s recounting of a once-turbulent relationship with Ryan that gives the film a beating heart. Watching him visit Ryan at home as he deals with increasing health problems is both touching and a reminder that football is more than a game. It is family. And good luck keeping a dry eye when Hehir exposes the handwritten letter Ryan wrote to his players. We also meet William “The Fridge” Perry, who remains to this day one of the largest men to ever don a football uniform at 6′ 2″ and 335 pounds. Well-spoken and extremely amiable, Perry’s demeanor is the epitome of, in MacMahon’s own words, the “big, happy fat guy.”

The ’85 Bears makes it clear no opponent looked forward to dealing with them. If other rivals — namely Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and the Windy City’s BFFs the Green Bay Packers — claimed they happily embraced the challenge of solving Ryan’s smothering defense or MacMahon’s ability to change plays at will while maintaining a high completion percentage, they were lying. Few, if any, teams looked forward to getting broken the way the Bears broke people. Their physical brutality all but locks the narrative in a time capsule, particularly as the league today continues to feign a stronger interest in advocating for the well-being of its players, both active and retired. One can’t help but think that such an evolution has naturally come about as a direct result of this epic chapter in Chicago’s storied football history.

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Buddy Ryan and Mike Singletary share a moment

Recommendation: Thoroughly entertaining and moving in equal measure, The ’85 Bears is much more than a film about a rare collection of football talent. It is about legacy, about pride and about how sports bring people together. I absolutely love this one. One of the best ESPN films has to offer. Definitely seek this out if you come to the realization that this chunk of NFL history is one of your blind spots.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know when there’s a pack of wild dogs, if one of them is mean, they’re all going to be mean. Guys are getting their asses handed to them out there.” 

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30-for-30: Believeland

'Believeland' movie poster

Release: Saturday, May 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Andy Billman

Imagine growing up in a city where you’re taught, almost assuredly from at least the eighth grade onward, that losing is a reality you must accept, simply based on some silly geographic lottery that you were thrust into at birth. Surprise! You’re from Cleveland, and your acclimatization to watching your sports team(s) losing is best done sooner rather than later. You’re not a loser, but you’re going to have to get used to the idea of losing.

Believeland, Andy Billman’s portrait of a city synonymous with bleak winters and even bleaker sports seasons, speaks to the harsh reality of being born and bred a Clevelander, and it doesn’t hide the fact that life is viewed just a little more pessimistically in these parts. Yet the film itself isn’t pessimistic and doesn’t beg for pity. In fact it does quite the opposite, demanding respect for a steely, hard-working community patiently waiting for the black cloud that had descended following the 1964 NFL Championship, the city’s last big W, to finally let the sun shine through.

The Fumble. The Shot. The Drive. Red Right 88. The Block. The Trade. The Move. The Lip. Are breaks in the cloud even possible?

Perhaps the film’s poster, bearing some of Cleveland’s most painful trials for all to see, is also the best way to describe Believeland: a series of vignettes that anyone watching around the Cleveland area would likely find a test of endurance. To everyone else it’s a laundry list of bad things that have happened. And, as is poignantly observed by Scott Raab, a native and novelist serving as a casual narrator as he regales us — and his son — at a local diner about all the ways in which his favorite teams have let him down: only Clevelanders will be able to look back and kind of laugh this all off. “That’s Cleveland.”

The story of the woes and the worries, of the pitfalls of being ever the optimist in a place that doesn’t reward optimism takes an interesting turn with the introduction of respected business man and former New York ad executive Art Modell, who in 1961 assumed operations of the Browns organization. A series of unpopular moves put Modell squarely in the crosshairs of passionate fans, who began viewing him as a villain rather than the savior they hoped he would be. It didn’t help matters that Modell didn’t strike anyone as a sports guy; he had no knowledge of the game though his business acumen was rarely questioned.

The firing of coach Paul Brown (the franchise’s first and namesake head coach) turned heads but didn’t earn him anywhere near the animosity his handling of star fullback Jim Brown did. Brown, who was exploring a career in acting on the side, had missed a week of training prior to the ’66 season from production delays on The Dirty Dozen which greatly upset Modell, who publicly threatened him with fines for each day he would continue to miss. Brown decided instead to retire.

Two Browns down; the rest to go? As fate would have it, in a way yes they would. As Modell had a lot of clout developing in Cleveland, he also had invested in repurposing the city’s old Municipal Stadium, agreeing to let both the football and baseball franchises (the Indians) sublease the space. Unfortunately after several fiscally disappointing years Modell became disillusioned with Cleveland as a prosperous venture, and, in an effort to save face decided he would try to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland. The news of course was enough to set light to an already crackling fanbase, a fanbase that had been growing restless for some time.

Despite a referendum in 1996 that ultimately allowed Cleveland to retain the franchise name, the Browns still faced deactivation for another three years (’97 – ’99). Meanwhile, Modell was busy introducing the Baltimore Ravens, to a decidedly torn fanbase who were simultaneously glad to again have a pro football team to back, but still aching over the loss of their beloved Colts (who relocated to their current city, Indianapolis). Indeed, one of the most heartrending moments of the documentary finds fans tearfully saying goodbye to their players on the last game of the ’95 campaign, a game they managed to win. There were few celebrations though;  instead violent confrontations and security staff at the game were assaulted by particularly unruly fans. Empty rows of seats were uprooted in the stadium and tossed onto the field. It came to symbolize the very antithesis of what a sporting environment should be.

Thus ‘The Move’ occupies a major spot at the table when it comes to all the perceived wrongs done unto the Cleveland faithful, representing quite possibly one of the darkest periods in their history. It makes the acquisition of recent burnouts like Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel pale in comparison. The latter especially may have been an embarrassment in its own right, but it was no back-stabbing like the one everyone saw Modell’s collective anti-‘land strategies as. But ‘The Move’ isn’t what ultimately defines Believeland, although it is all too easy to construct the argument that this documentary is designed almost as if to pardon self-loathing sports freaks.

The advent of LeBron James, and particularly the results of the 2016 NBA season*, go a long way in suggesting what Cleveland may have to offer the world going forward. A hugely promising, explosive power forward out of Akron, Ohio, James had been all but prophesied for greatness. Yeah, okay, so I guess we need to tack on ‘The Decision’ to that list of grievances, but the narrative has since evolved from one of bitter resentment to renewed enthusiasm and belief once more that Cleveland’s relevance is only a matter of appeasing The King with the hands he needs to rule a forgotten kingdom.

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LeBron Jamesland

* The 2016 NBA Finals featured a re-match of last year’s Finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. After an historic 73-9 regular season record, largely on the back of a virtuoso regular-season performance from shooting guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors shocked the world by failing to clinch their second consecutive title when they ran into the powerhouse that was LeBron James and a healthier Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Because of the results, Billman has stated that he is going to offer an alternative ending to Believeland to reflect the fact that James has finally, finally put an end to that championship drought in the nation’s most cursed sports town. Stay tuned for a quick blurb on my thoughts over this edit. 

Recommendation: Believeland speaks to the loyalty of fanbases and it ties the obsession with sports into the economic health of a city in intriguing and often heartbreaking ways. It might not be enough to sway those who see Clevelanders sports fans as rabid people with too much anger, but it just might be enough to entice those curious about the state of things in a city that doesn’t on the surface seem to have much to offer. I found this to be quite an interesting take on sports history and the way those closest to sports teams choose to interpret that history. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

https://vimeo.com/157732750

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Concussion

Concussion movie poster

Release: Christmas Day 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman

Directed by: Peter Landesman

Concussion is the kind of movie one watches because they want to get that warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing the big bad corporation that is the NFL taken down a peg or two. They watch it and are glad to see they’re not the only ones who think poorly of a league commissioner that officially — wait for it — owns a day of the week.

The bluntness of the title tells you everything you need to know about the story. This is the movie — well the first one, anyway — that strikes the one nerve no other football (or really any sports) drama has before. It focuses on Nigerian pathologist Dr. Benet Omalu (Will Smith), who discovers a link between severe head trauma and the physical violence of professional football.

His initial fear is confirmed by a series of deaths of former football ‘legends’  — the mourning of the passing of Junior Seau is thinly veiled — which inspires him to bring his findings to the attention of the league, much to the dismay of colleagues, including his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), and the league itself, who’s not so much worried about the findings as it is about their stash of cover-ups being discovered.

Of course the league knows about the aftermath; of course they know about the concussions. They won’t know to call the epidemic something fancy like chronic traumatic encephalopathy but big businessmen like these aren’t that oblivious. They’re just really good at not talking about an issue. The confluence of power and controversy (and secret-keeping) is Roger Goodell, who, wanting to put these recent blows to his public image behind him, probably became ecstatic when an actor who looks exactly nothing like him was hired to play the part.

It’s not all Luke Wilson’s fault, though. Concussion isn’t a sensational movie; contrivances and a few shaky performances abound, but it is really timely and its convictions are strong enough to be taken seriously. Will Smith’s certainly are. He might be at a career best here, gracefully becoming rather than mimicking a personality that now will become quite famous. Smith’s typically easygoing nature has been retooled with stern coldness, a commitment to solemnity not seen since Seven Pounds.

But back to Wilson’s Goodell for a second. For a character that gets all of 5 – 10 seconds of screen time, this might seem like a lot of wasted effort but he’s actually a major concern of mine. In a film that takes place often behind closed doors, Goodell’s still the one most distanced from the controversy. We never get inside his own personal office. Wilson’s appearance in mock video footage is more obligatory than compelling, yet the brevity of that appearance — not once in the same physical space Omalu occupies — lends Goodell this mysterious aura. That’s a reality check for you: even in a film purportedly confronting the cold hard truth, Goodell remains unscathed.

The NFL as a whole remains relatively out of reach for the duration of the picture as a matter of fact. Concussion builds momentum mostly through Omalu’s several investigations that he eventually publishes with the help of Pittsburgh Steeler team doctor Julian Bales (Alec Baldwin) in a medical journal. Those findings eventually bring the heat down upon Omalu and Bales — even Wecht — the league threatening through phone calls and police investigations their very careers. But the league offices are rarely a factor here. Instead it’s the strength of Smith’s performance that gets us to really care.

Just as it may be the case for the commissioner, I think the job of supporting a story of this magnitude shouldn’t have to fall to one person. Alas, here we are.

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Recommendation: Emotional story rooted in facts, Concussion offers fans of Will Smith another enjoyable outing yet the framework around him is all too familiar and forgettable. Not expecting to hear about too many outrages caused by this film, as everything we learn in this film is stuff we have already read about over the years: the NFL is a broken, money-sucking machine. What else is new?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “When I was a boy, Heaven was here. And America, was right here. You could be anything, you could do anything. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American.”

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Draft Day

draft-day-kevin-costner-movie-poster

Release: Friday, April 11, 2014

[Theater]

“A sports metaphor.”

There, I did it. I’ve gotten that out of my system, and now no one can call me out for not including at least one in a review for a football-related movie. Now, to get down to the x’s and o’s.

Kevin Costner is as amiable as ever as he becomes Sonny Weaver, the general manager of the Cleveland Browns in this odd dramatization of the process through which college players are selected to play in the pros. The film takes place over the course of a single day — I won’t tell you what day that is, because that is a massive spoiler. . . — and it establishes Costner’s character as the conduit through which all of the big day’s events, emotions and energy will flow.

Directed by some guy who busted a bunch of ghosts back in 1984, Draft Day is his opportunity to shed some light upon an area of the sport perhaps even many hardcore football fanatics would like to know more about. Before placing players on the field, some key executive decisions must be made before and during the drafting process which will determine who those will be. It wasn’t necessarily Reitman’s duty to provide us an action-packed football drama. In fact, for every football movie that has had it’s share of crazy plays, Draft Day features an equal number of moments that do not feature them, almost as if announcing to the world that a movie that discusses football rather than uses it as a plot device is actually possible.

The lack of quarterback/runningback heroics should hardly cost Reitman ten yards.

Whereas many films make the mistake of jamming as many action sequences together as possible to make the story feel more exciting; or others use the sport as a means of coping with reality (hence, football as a plot device), Draft Day considers all of these options and dispenses with them, opting to get down to fundamentals. Football, like any number of team activities at the professional level, is a business first and a passion second. For once it’s refreshing to witness sports functioning differently in the movies, even if certain realities can turn ugly. . .like knowing that all this movie is going to do is earn the NFL suits even more money, because this does make the game seem enticing and thrilling at the corporate level. There is plenty of drama to be found, but nothing of the “if I don’t make this play I can’t come home for dinner” variety. What passes for excitement and intensity in a movie like this is the direction in which conversations go and what picks are actually made in the draft in the film’s final act.

The events of Draft Day are completely fictionalized, but they transpire in a way that is entirely convincing, and to a somewhat lesser degree, emotionally investing.

Sonny is on the hot seat. It’s a seat so hot in fact, he can’t really sit down in it. The city is desperate to get back to a place where a championship title isn’t a pipe dream. With Sonny’s job on the line thanks to the hawk-like watch of team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), he must decide what assets he can afford to ditch and what’s worth keeping of his current line-up in order to take the right steps moving forward. But moving forward won’t be easy when his colleagues and players find out what Sonny is prepared to sacrifice in order to get what everyone thinks they want.

In the opening moments, Sonny is made an offer by Seattle Seahawks’ general manager Tom Michaels (Patrick St. Esprit) to trade their top pick in Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), who’s considered as this draft’s most sought-after talent, for three of Cleveland’s future top picks. Not one. Not two. Three years in a row. Keep in mind, a number one pick theoretically could change a team’s fortunes just like that. But what if the supposed star player they bargain for doesn’t deliver? What if he doesn’t fit in? Gets injured quickly? What then?

There’s also the little issue of Sonny’s personal affairs inside and away from the office, as he and his colleague and “friend” Ali (Jennifer Garner) struggle with the idea of making their relationship public. Sonny’s father has also recently passed away. Indeed, there is plenty of drama to endure on this day. Though it does border on shameless and is unavoidable, the product placement and brand recognition isn’t as intrusive at it sounds like it would be because, after all, this is what and where the movie is: it’s effectively a dramatization of the business that determines the futures of young men going into the working world. It’s almost possible to view this as a ‘real world’ film reel. Draft Day is an odd movie because it is filmed so in line with reality; it’s almost a special you might see on SportsCenter for a 10,000th Anniversary edition of the show.

And yet, it retains originality in Kevin Costner’s stalwart portrayal of a man in crisis mode, who saves a football team from almost irreparable damage; it is given personality in the fictitious players who are on the verge of elation or heartbreak depending on whether they get picked this year. The Cleveland Browns seem like a strange place for the film to take place in, and yet, no team is without it’s stretches of despair, confusion, even chaos. So at the same time we want to scoff at the notion of the Browns becoming a cinematic entity, why shouldn’t it have been them?

Draft Day is a competent drama that surprisingly appeals more because it spares little attention to the gridiron. Stuffed with sports jargon, it’s clear to see that it’s crafted to fit a somewhat niche audience, but a general interest in football will make this film a pleasant watch also. This is mostly due to Costner’s appeal. How this guy doesn’t wear a diaper for all of the shit he could lose each minute is beyond comprehension, and at times even humorous. These are aspects you begin to appreciate more about the sport after watching.

Keep an eye out for a number of big names including Ray Lewis, Chris Berman, Arian Foster, Deion Sanders, Mel Kiper and Jon Gruden.

DRAFT DAY

3-5Recommendation: You will totally be forgiven for looking at this as the NFL now invading the silver screen, but there’s more to this story than the corporate giants of football and film taking baths in the monetary exchanges. I mean, they probably did do that, but let’s focus on the fact that a film crew has managed to create a fictional account of a complicated process in the football off-season. No matter how you slice this one up, this is not your traditional sports film and could mean several different things to many different attendees. It’s worth a look for Costner fans, as well. His performance is spectacular.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “How is it that the ultimate prize in the most macho sport ever invented is a piece of jewelry?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com