"Draft Day"

Denis Leary, Frank Langella and Kevin Costner star in "Draft Day." (Courtesy of Summit Entertainment / May 24, 2013)

The people behind “Draft Day” like to say that it's not “about football”; it's about “characters” or “a man under pressure” or something like that. This is a blatant attempt to appeal to filmgoers who don't follow the game or don't even care about it. I'm among that demographic, so I can attest that their claim is valid. I don't even pay much attention to the Super Bowl, and even less to the draft — yeah, I know, that makes me practically un-American — and yet I was fully engaged. A few aspects of the draft go unexplained, but it's not hard to figure them out through context.

“Draft Day” is about football the business more than football the game. The story takes place off-season, and the only actual playing we see is in a few brief historical clips. Most of the film transpires during the hours leading up to the first day of the annual draft. (We occasionally see a ticker counting down the remaining time.)

Kevin Costner — who has been in more sports movies than any other contemporary actor — plays Sonny Weaver Jr., fictional general manager of the Cleveland Browns. In the hiring/firing hierarchy, Sonny is sandwiched between owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) and Coach Penn (Denis Leary), each pushing him in their own direction. In addition, Sonny is the son of the team's beloved former coach, who has recently died; Sonny carries the weight of having fired his own dad and replaced him with Penn, a fact no one will ever let him forget.

In the final run-up to the draft (and into the first round), Sonny and his counterparts around the country play a metaphorical high-stakes poker game — trading their positions in the draft, cutting deals, and bluffing each other. But, unlike poker, the managers have to deal not only with the other managers, but with popular opinion and leaks in both old-fashioned and social media. Add to that the sensitive egos of star players and various pressures from his girlfriend (Jennifer Garner), his mother (Ellen Burstyn), and his ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette), and Sonny is in a really tough spot.

Costner has always been a primarily visual actor: he relies on his close-ups more than his delivery of lines. This serves him well here. We know all the forces swirling around Sonny, but we don't always know what he's got up his sleeve. Exactly what is his plan? Does he even have one? Or is he improvising as he goes along? Was that enigmatic expression one of confidence or of genuine confusion? Director Ivan Reitman (“Stripes,” “Ghostbusters,” “Dave”), writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, and Costner withhold just enough information to generate suspense.

Reitman has surrounded Costner with first-rate actors — not just Leary, Burstyn, and Langella, but also Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in “42”), Chi McBride, Sam Elliott, and Kevin Dunn. A number of real football players appear among them, and it's admirably hard to tell them from the actors.

Reitman also applies an unusual stylistic device. Given the story, it's not surprising that there are a lot of split-screen phone conversations, but Reitman keeps the split-screen line in almost constant motion, serving as a form of wipe to change setting or focus. Even more unusual is that Costner is sometimes placed in front of the line — a privileged position that keeps him the center of our attention.

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).