National Champions: Review
National Champions Synopsis: Three days before the college football national championship game, star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephen James) and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) ignite a player’s strike — declaring they won’t compete until all student-athletes are fairly compensated. With billions of dollars at risk and the legacy of their coach (J.K. Simmons) on the line, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Sports films often fixate on athletes’ day-to-day struggles toward superstardom, utilizing a bevy of time-honored cliches and warm, crowdpleasing moments to inspire viewers. Similar to the sports themselves, these fantastical renditions often tell a story that overlooks the darker minutiae lying under the surface – with modern athletes often sacrificing their health and image for a system that silences any dissension.
Director Ric Roman Waugh’s latest vehicle National Champions takes a much-needed look at college athletics and the industry’s free labor practices. Despite a few clumsy missteps, Waugh and screenwriter Adam Mervis conjure a fittingly complex detour from the sport’s glitz and glamour in a well-informed and hard-hitting drama.
Akin to the rich complexities of 2011’s analytical baseball film Moneyball, National Champions reflects a strong understanding of its subject matter and its underlying nuances. Mervis places audiences in the shoes of LeMarcus James, an athlete driven by meaningful protests as he fights for industry-wide change for college athletes. It’s no surprise that James’ journey offers a searing denouncement of the NCCA’s practices, but Mervis thankfully forms his film as something grander.
National Champions works at its best when digging into the institutionalized roots behind modern sports practices. Similar to real-life advocates Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, James’ journey intelligently taps into the avenues institutions take to control and denounce those who speak against the money-making conglomerate. The system James battles is far more imposing than any competitor he faces on the field, with the subdued racial and classist undertones creating an environment that limits student-athletes at every turn.
Stars Stephan James and Alexander Ludwig deliver performances radiating with conviction and emotional sincerity as two friends who step out on a slippery slope against the NCCA. James, in particular, possesses natural movie star gravitas onscreen, often transforming the character’s amalgam-like development into a distinctly felt presence onscreen. J.K. Simmons delivers one of his best performances to date as LaMarcus’ traditionalist coach. The actor balances equal parts hard-headed stubbornness and emotional vulnerability as a man with little purpose outside of dictating his team’s every move. Character acting stalwarts Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, and Uzo Aduba also shine as members of the corrupt NCCA.
National Champions always has its heart in the right place, which helps mitigate some of the film’s earnest heavy-handedness. Melvis and Waugh settle too often on shouting their message from the rooftop, utilizing too many overwritten speeches and melodramatic devices to communicate their perspective. Melvis’ screenplay also endures some bizarre structural problems. A subplot involving the coach’s wife and her affair with one of LaMarcus’ professors only works to congest the narrative, with stars Kristen Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant having little to do in their underdeveloped roles.
Issues aside, National Champions delivers a well-textured spotlight on the unjust stranglehold athletic institutions have upon their athletes. I hope films like this continue to provide valuable lip service for the industry’s overlooked complications.