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Draft Day

Draft Day

The key scene in this movie is where Kevin Costner's Sonny Weaver realizes what it is about the person he's been shepherded to pick as the number one overall pick -- the Heisman trophy-winner quarterback, Bo Callahan -- that proves there's something foul about him. He notices that after being sacked twice by the same player, he isn't able to rebound but rather starts doing things like hurrying the ball -- he let a player get to him, lets himself get rattled. The linebacker who did this to him -- Vontae Mack -- is the player Sonny wanted to pick as his first pick, and from highlights of the same game, sees further confirmation for choosing him, even though no one else had accounted him the best player available. Vontae got booted from the game -- but after an official hassled him after he gave away a game ball to his sister in the stands: far from a pariah, he's a selfless person who does everything for his family and every-time-otherwise for his team -- what Sonny already has seen and appreciated about him.

Very nice. But the man doing all the sorting is someone spending much of the film recovering from being cowed himself -- Sonny agreed to deal three number one draft picks in order to get the number one choice, under pressure of a narcissitic owner insisting he make a big splash. And rather than someone who cedes to his family, he's haunted by having agreed to fire his father at his mother's behest, and so now refuses her not only by not attending the reading of his father's will but by not following through with his father's requests on how to ceremoniously dispense with his ashes. That is, if his personality was somehow schlepped into a candidate for the number one draft, he'd be exactly the type he'd deem a bust.

Ivan Reitman, the director, also produced "Animal House," a film we remember not for witch-hunting individuals for character idiosyncrasies and for championing the humdrum, but for the opposite -- a full-on hoisting up of the odd as American emblematic. The soul of that film still exists to some extent in Sonny, who seems a baby-boomer bent on ensuring he doesn't relapse into being easily amenable to the wishes of family seniors. He's someone who's reminiscences on Joe Montana and John Candy betray a love for the idiosyncratic and surprising -- even as much as he keeps the good part of it to himself --  and who's ongoing affinity for people like that carries forward a bit with his encounters with the perennially unsure-footed, out-of-place, nerdish intern. But still, there's a sense that he's a man who's ceded himself at least half to "plastics" -- dull, "parental" expectations, that is -- too. The players he wants for his team are a linebacker everyone knows will be steadying but maybe not "a natural," a quarterback that has worked hard over the off-season so now can comfortably throw ten yards further, and a legacy running back who might have a problem with violence but is remonstrating himself now as a dutiful agent of his father's earnest, constant-shoulder-overlooking shepherding -- they're those who's equivalent in university juniors would never have pledged the unaccountable Delta of "Animal House" fame but rather any other, which would've imbibed of the already hewn that normally defines the ranks of a fraternity. 

Further, there's a sense in even his telling of how Montana, during a last minute comeback during a Superbowl game, had motioned his teammates to check out John Candy in the stands, he's enfranchising himself with the remembrance of all that moment consisted of -- which wasn't just cool-headedness but the delightfully aberrant; of someone admitting himself a fan-boy whilst directing a heroic drive  -- while admonishing it for a younger generation who hadn't been there so they'll understand it only in chastised form -- as his simply keeping his cool under duress. He's someone who knew what strange surprises and delights a universe can offer, but willingly played a part in putting it into thrill-discouraging strictures for a younger generation to only know. He'd become a guy who, for example, even if fully aware that someone like Gretzky could succeed brilliantly despite saying he'd lift a barbell only once he saw one score a goal, wouldn't oblige a younger generation this remembrance unless somehow it could substantiate the admirability of his young star's working real hard to bulk up during the off-season -- perhaps by establishing him as someone who doesn't foolishly change habits that are working for him, rather than someone who thumbed his nose to expectations... someone who was so admirably (for some) or infuriatingly (for others) insouciant to how what he said might have made him seem an effete intruder gorging on having inextricably made a whole sport his personal lounge and-sometimes bitch. 

There's a sense that I take this film to well represent the baby boomer's legacy at this point. They're still a generation so enabled by having grown up in a youth-favoring, prosperous time, that they have a better chance of weathering the damage sticking up for what you believe in can bring. Through playful, fearless exploration -- which involved terribly consequent generational conflict, violence, and permanent splits -- they enabled themselves the self-esteem, the self-love, to do so. When Sonny decides to keep faith with his original choice for his team, even though it means choosing a player no other would value as even close to being the draft's best, and with it needlessly costing him three number one draft picks, I believed that the character was going to be able to weather the damage this would bring. It'd cost him his job; he'd be endlessly ridiculed (even if he made an apt choice that showed he saw things others didn't, the fact that he let himself be dissuaded from his preferred choice in the first place would always showcase his hesitancy, his shame); his mother would have further reason to discredit him as an adult -- and yet he'd know he'd done what he believed was the right thing for the team, and as having done it despite testing. He of course gets the happy ending -- but you believe he was ready if all that'd of been gifted him was tumult. We know it'd have been very hard to have done the same but appreciate the reminder that this is what it is to keep faith with yourself -- the world might first hate you for it, then cast you off as a loser to be forgotten about -- an assignation that'd stick. If the film had ended with his simply making the right choice… as he sat alone before us, would we have fretted our close proximity to his seeping poisonous carapace? We just can't be seen with you, dude… as we scrambled to cast our lot with some group giving themselves high-fives over actually obvious choices or easily accomplished goals rather than the loner forbearing himself before demons the rest of us are pretending exist only in his imagination.

Boomerish too, for me, was his whole making his mid-life about needing to brace battles most of us would prefer to imagine quarantined into our early adulthood. That is, his mother's coming close to being all over him, a net spread out to trap his autonomy. She doubts his business acuity, hates his new girlfriend, and has succeeded in humiliating him by determining his most important sport and personal decisions in the past -- she managed to convince him to fire his father, for his ongoing participation with the Browns being bad for his health, even as his father would of clearly had it otherwise and chosen to end his life earlier than medically required but requisite to keeping lifelong fidelity to his team intact. He ends up being up to her challenge; but it's a brave thing for a film to suggest that despite being a well-placed boomer with all the accoutrements of being the generation that's firmly now in charge, you're still vulnerable to feeling like despite it all you can regress to being someone who doesn't yet know they're up to fending off determined parents in the first place -- the "Graduate's" "plastic" battle all over again, but at age sixty. Very brave indeed to admit to that dispiriting possibility!

But if he's still the 60s kid, he's still bent on directing youth not to be, to be less rebellious and (therefore) self-realized than his generation was. This strikes me as a current boomerish prediliction as well. Obviously we're all feeling that this is no longer a time for creating artistic paeans to self-indulgence, so if you're going to keep to yourself the possibility of keeping faith with yourself regardless, the way to do this without guilt is to show that you're going to do what you can to limit the ability of the generation that'll eventually be taking over to stretch the possibilities of human growth when and if they gird themselves to insist on the same. You tell them -- like this movie does -- that the best performers are those who are loyal to their family, who graciously accept snubs and lumps, and carry themselves with discretion and modesty, even though if you look back just five years ago the best performers were the likes of Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, and Tiger Woods -- those who, together, were abrasive, self-infalting, two-faced, and slept with towns full of women. Heck, there's even a scene where a player is instructed not to unduly tweet, and where the player is shown accepting the wisdom of that... and with that any possibility the player would ever develop the irrepressible individualism of Kobe Bryant, who still can't be stopped from daily reminding us that the message a corporation would have us imbibe is vulnerable anytime its greatest assets speak their unrehearsed honest opinion regardless. But, ah, he's almost out of the sport, so we we can pretend he already isn't here and safely double-down on young athletes who in comparison are somewhat lacking in depth, personality and irascibleness. 

Given the predilections of our age, it's appropriate that the film shows acquiring the number one overall draft pick as something of a curse -- with it meaning you're going to be saddled with someone we still haven't stripped of associations we've spent decades building up as requisite to this choice, of him being a prima dona, that is. Someone like the quarterback in the film, Bo Callahan, who's got a website devoted to all the women he's slept with, is a gelled, stylish, pretty boy, who's already been feted to the skies... and who yet might just still be the next messiah to transform not only your team but your sport. It means being saddled with someone expectations still insist will involve more your adjusting to him than him to whatever system you've already got in place -- by legend, the number-one-overall redefines everything, something we sense in the film when Sonny momentarily feels beholden to the possibility that getting superstar Bo is still better for the team than keeping relevant all their agonized previous months of prep for the upcoming season. 

So the real "victory" of the film is akin to a successful potlatch -- the neat giving away of unwanted riches, without looking foolish for having done so -- like as if you're just averse to the limelight. Sonny tells another general manager that getting three number two picks is worth giving up access to a substantial number one, and this film informs this preference with wisdom -- the three players Sonny gets for Bo are exemplified for being hardworking and loyal, or as useful special team players/irregulars: the associations we normally ascribe to second bests, seven out of tens, okays but not beautifuls.  

The message of this film is a perfect fit for news that one of the best sports teams this season is the Boston Bruins, who dealt away their previous two superstars -- Phil Kessell and Tyler Seguin -- and is now a team without star leadership at its center position. You can still triumph, despite these moves maybe having more to do with being superstitiously averse to charismatic, "golden-locked" offensive leaders than to hockey sense, is how this fact was enthusiastically greeted in some quarters. They've still got the giant Zdeno Chara… but that's like a frowning, desolate, craggy terrain being unafraid to inform of its being backed underneath by voluminous magma, or an unattractive, apish lout that he's backed by a surprise charge of Popeye strength -- they safely serve as advertisements of your overall overt lack of incriminating show(iness), that is.

There's a nice line in the film where Coach Penn, played by Denis Leary, responds to Sonny's demand that he wants more Tarzans on his team by saying that he's already got a full team of them… and that they could actually use a Jane! This might be a hard thing to buy an NFL coach saying, but something about the environment enabled for the middle-aged adults in this film makes this latitude, this evolution in style and attitudes, fit perfectly. And it's nice to know that a good portion of football-loving middle America would have been non-plussed by this as well, even as much as it was probably requisite that a hero of theirs -- Denis Leary, playing a fully macho, former Dallas Cowboys' coach, no less -- was the one who said it, and however much they might not have been if the analogy chosen required the coach requesting a Nancy not a Jane. There's been a lot of evolution in attitudes since the 50s, and this 60s generation deserves credit for spreading and mounting it; and it's nice to see them flexing their success, their successful overlay over all areas of the social environment, in this film. 

But what's not so nice is when you sense within the same film that could do this, building blocks for fearing what is queer and different being newly constituted. So much of the movie is about hunting down something about this ostensibly flawless candidate which could make him ruinous to any team that drafted him -- a Trojan horse. Sonny at one point says that all great players had flaws that people weren't sure wouldn't prove to actually derail them success in the NFL, and uses this as excuse to do a substantial close-examine on already heavily vetted Bo. But with Bo he isn't interested in exploring the kinds of weaknesses he listed for the others. He isn't interested in knowing if he throws too hard or not hard enough, but if he stinks as a human being; and believes he finds evidence that he in fact does. He can't be dissuaded from thinking there is something terribly revealing about the fact that none of his teammates attended his 21st birthday, which can't be smoked out from previous coaches or other players because they're keeping hush-hush for the honour of their school's player going number one in the draft, and the movie wants you to believe it to. His friends can't stand him -- for good reason, we are being told. And so here in this movie the kind of fear of the awry and different that for ages derailed, for instance, Jews from getting into Harvard -- everyone knew they were smart, but something about their character… Best to go with the known.

So Bo is effectively shown up as someone "so obnoxious seniors'd beat [him] up once a week," and as such the NFL team that plays the "Animal House" Delta role in taking in this known "Otter" anyway, are the Seahawks, not the Browns, who not only knew him to be showy but just saw him on live television throw a temper tantrum when not chosen number one. You take how the movie shows the personal life of the Brown's GM, with the fearlessness of the Seahawks' GM's in effect rescuing an athlete from a rapidly accumulating, entirely rumor-based pile-on that would have ruined his life, and you'd of had the movie we should have been gifted with -- and would of hoped of from Ivan Reitman. As is, half of it has to be mentally scrapped for legitimizing stigma and bigotry. "It's okay to sit beside the person without any friends; he or she may not bite," we're in need to tell ourselves afterwards. 


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