Draft Day isn't a great movie, but it's good enough, and that's entirely thanks to the fact that Kevin Costner is in it. Costner is like your dad: You loved the guy at first, and then maybe you rebelled against him—thought you had outgrown him—but now you've come around to the fact that he gets you in ways that other people just don't. He won Oscars for Dances With Wolves, caught Al Capone in The Untouchables, and tried to solve Kennedy's assassination in JFK. But Draft Day is a reminder that his true legacy lies elsewhere. For more than 25 years now, he's been making sports movies, a lot of them better than anyone else's. It's a genre suited to his talents.
This new film is a sports movie in the vein of Moneyball or Trouble With the Curve: It's about the business of sports more than the thrill of victory. Costner plays Sonny, the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, who are rebuilding (a stretch, I know) and hoping that a successful draft can put them back on top. Spanning less than 24 hours, Draft Day follows Sonny around as he negotiates trades with other teams, squares off with his girlfriend (played by Jennifer Garner), and squabbles with the team's egotistical coach (Denis Leary). This is one of those balancing-work-and-love comedy-dramas, but even when it gets formulaic, Costner is a total pro, and makes you feel all of Sonny's warring impulses between being a good boyfriend, being a good general manager, and being a good son. (He's trying to honor his family's deep roots with the Browns.)
There is something reassuring about Costner's presence—rugged but familiar—that's akin to the return of your favorite sport each year. We take pleasure from it, we know what to expect from it, and we take it for granted, always knowing it's going to be there. We tend to get a little too sentimental about our connection to our favorite sport or favorite team—it's not just grown men playing a game, it has to mean something—and at his best, Costner seems to embody this tendency. He's all aging masculine dignity and sappy sincerity, like a Cialis commercial imbued with the sepia tones of a Ken Burns retrospective.
Sentimentality has been his thing from the start. Before Bull Durham, he was in another sports movie, 1985's American Flyers, about brother cyclists, one of whom may be carrying a deadly hereditary disease. Little-seen, it deals with sibling rivalry and father-son issues alongside the obligatory bike-racing scenes. But 1988's Bull Durham helped solidify his stardom, establishing his rep as a romantic leading man but, maybe more importantly, as a noble failure. Crash Davis never got to live out his big-league dreams, but he played the game the right way, the highest compliment (and biggest cliché) you could ever assign to an athlete.
A year later, Costner perfected what would become his out-pitch: the manly-cry sports movie. Field of Dreams is up there with the best male weepies of modern times, and while I imagine those immune to baseball's charms can still connect to its story of an Iowa farmer going through an existential crisis, loving America's Pastime seems crucial to understanding why so many men get blubbery at the end when Costner asks his reincarnated dad if he'd like to have a catch. The movie is all about indulging men's weakness for romanticizing both their pasts and the grandeur of sports. (In Field of Dreams, believing in the power of baseball is enough to help save your farm from foreclosure.)
For such potential hokum to work, it needed a star who didn't just understand it, but actively believed in it, and Costner was the perfect man for the job. Tom Hanks gets a lot of credit for being such a likable everyman, but at his peak, Costner was right there with him: He seemed like a regular dude, except handsomer and more in touch with his feelings. In Field of Dreams, he looked like a baseball-loving farmer, but his slightly Zen-like aura suggested a man of deeper emotions, able to cry and connect with other men without scaring off male audiences. It was okay to weep along because, for guys, it's always acceptable to get emotional about baseball. Sports movies have always preyed on our inner sap: Costner seemed to manifest their rugged/mawkish dichotomy.
As Costner got older and his stardom faded in the post-Waterworld era, he's occasionally returned to sports movies, with plots that seemed to reflect his personal circumstances. 1996's underrated Tin Cup reunited him with Bull Durham filmmaker Ron Shelton, but it was telling that this time he played a guy who once seemed to have limitless potential but had squandered it. Failed pro golfer Roy McAvoy was clearly a metaphor for Costner himself, the Oscar-winning star who had let his ego implode his career. (And to think: The Postman was still a year off.) Tin Cup was a sports movie for all those guys alarmed to see their athletic prowess dry up as they reached their forties, although the movie conveniently provided a happy ending so viewers wouldn't feel too bad about their own fading youth.
1999's For Love of the Game carted out the hoariest of sports-movie tropes—the aging pitcher making one last comeback—but Costner actually did a better job as a graying ex-ballplayer in The Upside of Anger. That 2005 Joan Allen drama isn't a sports movie, but Costner gives one of his best performances, and again it's partly because the character reflects the actor's standing. His stardom long evaporated, Costner seemed to connect poignantly with Denny Davies' fate, this alcoholic former star who's now trying to make peace with whatever life is going to throw at him next. He gave the potentially pathetic has-been nobility; he always invests his sports characters with an honesty and integrity that we fans like to think real-life athletes possess. Of course, in real life, we're disappointed again and again when sports stars prove undeserving of our admiration. Costner has had plenty of failings as a movie star, but these characters have never let us down: They break our hearts a lot less often than actual athletes do.
Currently, Costner is enjoying a career renaissance of sorts, appearing in 2013's Man of Steel and this year's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit as respective father-figures to the films' young stars. But after suffering through February's wan action-comedy 3 Days to Kill, I was even more convinced that I only want to see him in certain roles: Draft Day, as goofy and bogus as it can be, is an ideal Costner vehicle. All the proof you need is the moment when Sonny wistfully recalls Joe Montana's game-winning drive at the end of Super Bowl XXIII. It's the kind of water-cooler bull session that Costner turns into a mini-Shakespeare soliloquy full of feeling and meaning. Or there's the scene where Sonny talks passionately about his desire to field one perfect team that's really his. What's great about sports is they allow us to relive our athletic glory days vicariously: Here again, Costner personifies that irretrievable desire to see ourselves through the prism of sports clichés and analogies. Of course, this is a completely ridiculous way to live. But at least he makes us feel a little less stupid for doing it anyway.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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