With Draft Day, Kevin Costner returns to the world of sports. Will he again deliver the big hit when it counts?
This is an article from the April 14, 2014 issue
DEREK JETER is not really a great player, but thanks to the Yankees' free-spending habits, he's been on a lot of great teams. This silly contention has kicked around baseball for years, or at least around bars where baseball fans gather, most of them in Boston. But the Yankees had been absent from the postseason for 13 years (1982 to '94) when Jeter showed up in the Bronx, and they've made the playoffs 17 of the 19 years since. Last season, when they went home early, Jeter played in only 17 games. At some point it's difficult not to think the guy has some influence on his team's success. And that, for the purposes of this essay—and perhaps in no other way—brings us to Kevin Costner.
To put Costner's history with sports movies in sports terms, he's 5--0. American Flyers, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup and For Love of the Game were all winners, the middle three classics. Does Costner know something others don't? Does he have some sort of influence on his films' success?
"There have been a lot of crummy sports movies over the years," says Costner, "and many of them have come across my desk. But I haven't responded to them because first, like all movies, they need to be about people and relationships, but also because they don't ring true. In crummy sports movies the actors can't play. They don't know the language, how to move. Olivier* might have been our greatest actor, but you can't fake throwing a baseball. It's this simple, nearly balletic movement that either you can do or you can't."
Costner can. He grew up in a bygone pre-sports-specialization America, playing football, basketball and baseball in Southern California. "Baseball started in spring, and when Little League was over, we played through the summer, in the street with a bat held together by nails, going until the streetlights came on," he says in a way that makes it possible to imagine the chords of a John Mellencamp song swelling in the background. "We played basketball in the same shoes we wore to school. No one had special shoes just for basketball."
Nor did they have the imagination to foresee today's NFL salary cap, and yet here comes Draft Day, in which Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Browns, who starts the day with a chance to trade up for the No. 1 pick. If the plot sounds a little thin, it's not: Sonny must also contend with his owner, coach, mother, ex-wife, girlfriend and his father's ghost. With all those plotlines, and the draft's ever-present countdown clock, the movie has the pacing and intensity of a CSI episode spiced with a pinch of Modern Family humor.
"I was drawn to Draft Day because it sounded—the language, the situations—authentic," Costner says. "Too often Hollywood doesn't care about those details, but they make all the difference. You can't simply spit. You have to know when to spit."
At 59, Costner now has enough lines on his face and meat on his bones to be convincing as an NFL lifer and, as in his other sports movies, he conveys the physical grace and grit that mark so many around the game. After much lobbying by producers, the NFL played along with the movie, and former executive Mike Tannenbaum (Jets) and journalist Steve Serby (New York Post) consulted on the script.
Still, the plot requires some suspension of disbelief—even beyond the notion that anything could turn out well for the Cleveland Browns. It lacks the knowing charm of Ron Shelton's Bull Durham and Tin Cup or the magic of Phil Robinson's Field of Dreams, but it's a good movie: fast-moving, insidery and funny. Derek Jeter didn't hit a lot of home runs, but he always seemed to smack an opposite-field double when it counted.
Costner has an appreciation for the games and for the people who play them. "I've been moved to tears by games, by moments," he says. "Those things mark you." Draft Day may not affect its audience in quite that way, but that's O.K. To paraphrase Annie Savoy, the poet of Bull Durham, sports movies may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but they're also a job.
* Lee Marvin once said of Jim Brown: "Well, Brown's a better actor than Sir Laurence Olivier would be as a member of the Cleveland Browns."
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