“Are you going to say anything to me, anything at all?” Ali (Jennifer Garner) stands an entire kitchen away from Sonny (Kevin Costner) when she puts this question to him. For the next minute or so, the camera cuts back and forth between the two of them, each isolated, each in visible turmoil. In order that you don’t have to guess for more than a minute as to what’s causing his distress, Sonny says the worst possible “anything” he might have, that is, that on this day, she might have expected him to “feel a little conflicted about the news that I’m gonna be a dad.”
Ah well. This day, of course, gives the movie its title, Draft Day. And yes, it’s a special and especially stressful day for Sonny, the manager for the Cleveland Browns, a team with such a terrible record that it’s been awarded the first pick. It’s also a stressful day for Ali, the lawyer whose job it is to look after the Browns’ salary caps. And of course, it’s a stressful day for everyone in any sort of vicinity to FirstEnergy Stadium, from owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) to Coach Penn (Denis Leary) to the much-abused intern (Griffin Newman). The movie goes on to position each of these individuals in some sort of faux familial relationship to Sonny, such that his dad issues—so metaphorical and so emotional too—shape Draft Day‘s overriding melodrama.
A focus on dads is to be expected in a movie made in close conjunction with the NFL, a conjunction made clear in the film’s placement of the league’s team names, logos, and uniforms, not to mention its theme music. Draft Day offers up dads at the center of every plot point: as Sonny ponders becoming a dad, he’s reminded by everyone, including his widowed mother (Ellen Burstyn), that his father was a revered Browns coach, his possible picks consult with him as if he’s a dad or with their own dads and dad-like college coaches and agents (one played by P-Diddy Combs, flashily), and one of his possible picks, the nicest one, even plays a dad-like figure to his young nephews. And, of course, the film culminates in the image of the biggest, bestest dad of all, Roger Goodell on the stage, calling out the names of hopeful young men whose lives are changed forever by that one moment.
It hardly matters that the notion of the NFL being so full of dads looking out for their many sons is a gargantuan fiction. It’s a longstanding, well-packaged fiction, a product sold repeatedly and for lots of profit. Indeed, the NFL’s carefully cultivated self-image may be the most paternal of all the professional American sports, so very concerned with player safety and kids’ educations and fans’ physical fitness. All this self-promotion helps to allay potential concerns that the NFL is also a multi-billion dollar business, or more specifically, that players or kids or fans might be somehow exploited in order to make that business go.
As Draft Day swirls its plot around the dad idea, it makes the case that any possible exploitation is individual or unintentional, rather than systemic. And so: the significantly named Sonny does his best to live up to his dad’s legacy, while also living with the rumor that he fired his own dad just before the old man died. He mistreats the intern until Ali points out that he should not, he behaves like a father to the Browns quarterback (erstwhile Smallville Superman Tom Welling) in fear of losing his job to the top pick, a plainly selfish Adonis type named Bo (!) (Josh Pence), and he fathers as well his personal favorite pick, Vontae (Chadwick Boseman), a great linebacker and good kid, so good that he plays dad for his adorable nephews.
The constant motion of Draft Day‘s dad stories does tend to overwhelm the mom stories. Ali is beautifully supportive and smart, more consistently rational and determinedly on task than any of her male counterparts, who tend to be, you know, emotional. Sometimes they express their emotions loudly, slamming furniture or throwing tablets against walls, sometimes they yell or slam doors, and sometimes, most of the time, they clench their jaws and look grim, expectant or disappointed. Ali is left to deal with almost all of them, literally putting out the fire that Penn starts when he burns the scouting report he believes Sonny has squandered, smiling politely to Sonny’s mom who can’t remember her name and also to his ex (Roseanna Arquette), on hand, essentially, to look mean, following Sonny into the closet when he needs to talk to her so earnestly, and making sure the numbers work when Sonny announces surprises when the Browns’ picks start to look like surprises.
That Ali does all this while living with the news that she’s going to be a mom. It’s not a surprise in a movie that’s pretty much a big commercial for the NFL that we never know anything about how this affects her, the nature of her relationship with her parents, or even who else she might tell this news. You do know she’s a lifelong Browns fan, that she can “always talk football,” when her partner can’t seem to talk about anything else. You also know that she knows precisely how the NFL game is played, that draft day entails all manner of performance, as men pretend to be cocky and in control, all-knowing or all-trusting, smart and intuitive. Sonny and all the other managers he calls during the day—the men who want or say they have the “golden ticket,” the men who don’t believe each other but want to believe each other so much they can taste it—can’t know what’s going to happen, and that gins up the tensions of draft day, apparently.
But still, you kind of know how this particular daft day will go, from the start, because Sonny must, after all, be the good dad. Ali tells Sonny that she loves especially his ability to see what other people cannot, his sense of hope and his faith in his own judgment. And because she loves that, you’re supposed to love it too, fiction or not.