What would you call it if someone made money off your hard work? I’m not talking about a manager at your local Mom & Pop Shop running their business with a few hired hands, I’m talking about someone making millions of your skill, your face, your name, while working you to the bone and offering little in compensation. This has been the way it’s worked for collegiate athletes for generations, school’s offering education for play via scholarships. Except where the schools offer room, board, and education, there’s more often little else provided in the way of additional income and there’s plenty of pressure to maintain high fitness at all times. One might say that it’s a fair contract, as many may use their skills on the field of play to go to college or even go into professional sports, but the number of student athletes who do go pro is far less than those who hold that dream and too many break their bones and destroy their bodies at far too young an age with no resources once they’re no longer (a) able to play or (b) a student at the school. Written by Adam Mervis (21 Bridges) and directed by Ric Roman Waugh (Greenland) comes National Champions, a dramatic thriller which examines the real cost and extreme profits of collegiate football. By focusing on character, this film leaves it all on the field from start-to-finish, pushing even the most apathetic audience member to end of their seat.
The Friday before the national championship football game is set to begin, New Orleans is electric with energy. Representatives from the National Collegiate Athletic Association are present, as well as coaches from the competing teams and their boosters. While Coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons) is being celebrated for his work to make it to the championship, his quarterback, LeMarcus James (Stephan James), and his fellow teammate, Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), start a boycott of the game, citing the lack of compensation or insurance among their grievances. As the two begin to pull more players into the boycott, Lazor and the NCAA begin a game of their own. Suddenly, it’s not about who has the best team, but whether a revolution can be fought and won in a weekend.
If you were to ask anyone in my family (blood-related, married-in, or chosen) about my knowledge of football, they’d likely begin with a giggle before stating my indifference. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with football, but I’ve always been apathetic to watching sports. I’d much rather play, even badly, than watch. Tribalism has never been a good enough reason for me to invest in anything and, while I understand that the excitement of success/failure is often built into one’s scholastic experience, there’s never been anything about the sport itself which called to me. But then you get films like For the Love of the Game (1999) or Draft Day (2014), coincidentally both Kevin Costner pictures, and something shifts for me. Game is a character-driven tale where Costner’s Billy Chapel recounts his life as he pitches the best game of his 19-year career, whereas Draft Day is almost like a confidence movie as Costner’s Sonny Weaver makes moves we see and don’t see coming in order to have the best possible outcome during the NFL draft. These are films about the game without being *about* the game. Such is the case with National Champions, a film which smartly leans on its characters playing a rapidly escalating game of chess, with each side thinking they’ve got the upper-hand. Credit to James and Ludwig as the two that not only kick the film off, but carry the emotional burden on their shoulders. Like all good thrillers, what they’re asking for is predicated by something we’re unaware of, which will only be made clear by the end of the journey. One of the best things about Mervis’s script is how much isn’t expressed, requiring the audience to infer from the performances in front of us. This works best via James’s LeMarcus, the perceived golden boy with the world in his palm, brought to life by a performer who transforms audience expectations of what a quarterback should be into seeing him as a human, complexities and all.
Though National Champions is very much James’s film, I think there’s an argument that this is more of an ensemble piece. I say this not because the cast includes such talent as Simmons, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, and Uzo Aduba, but because each one of the members of this rather large cast plays a significant role in what takes place over a very long, once celebratory weekend. It’s fair to say that the film has its own opinions as to whether college athletes should be paid and as early as June 2021, some real-world athletes are legally allowed to profit from their athletic achievements, but Mervis’s script allows for the possibility that what LeMarcus wants is too much to ask for. We get this side from those with the most to lose, represented by characters played by Simmons, Howery, and Donovan. Each of them has a vested interested in the success of LeMarcus and, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, some of that interest is because of how the system is designed. That LeMarcus would seek to profit, especially at a moment when Simmons’s Lazor is the most vulnerable to any kind of manipulation (his legacy is on the line with this game), enables the script to offer moments where the cast can attempt to convince the audience of LeMarcus’s greed and opportunism versus some kind of altruism. This, of course, goes back to the chess game the script is playing, pushing the audience from one emotional position to another as new information comes to light with each power shift of the proverbial board. There’s a difference between what’s just and what’s legal and the perspective of the audience combined with powerful performances from the cast will push you toward the side you most feel comfortable. Especially where the film ends, with what’s inferred over what’s spoken, I personally know exactly where I lie (just versus legal) and find it fascinating that National Champions would go to such a place to anchor its point. Without such a cast, the script would feel more forced, more like an agenda to be ratified, that a tale with as much complexity as the real world.
If not for three moments in the film, I was locked in entirely from start to finish. Part of this is because the chemistry between James and Ludwig from the jump is joyous, their comradery clear and substantial. At no point is their faith in each other questioned by each other or us, no hand-wringing or second-guessing, just two friends putting it all on the line. This is something we’ve seen in sports films before, but usually that has more to do with being on the field than off. Where the film lost me a bit was in a moment of editing involving Lazor, a scene with Chenoweth’s Bailey Lazor, and a moment with Uzo Aduba’s fixer Katherine Poe. The first involves a rallying sequence that ends with Lazor leaving a room to applause only for it to cut to him in the same room, but empty and talking with someone. It would be far more powerful a moment to have shown him still in the room with a cut to the room empty. Instead, it feels like the kind of odd cut you’d see in a television show where the characters start a conversation before getting into the car and then continue it when getting out at their location. You know it’s a way to short-hand things, but it softens the strength of reality. For Chenoweth, delightful as she is, the issue here is the line-drawn by the character in the moment, which seems entirely out of character for what we’ve seen thus far. Her character needs to be where she is physically for a variety of reasons when this happens (that part makes sense), but it’s the reaction which seems displaced among everything else. Similarly, Aduba’s constantly-cool-under-pressure fixer loses it (the scene partially shown in the trailer) when there has been no presentation of cracks forming prior to this moment. As such, it feels strange and unexpected, more emotional in the moment where something far more tempered would make sense as a reaction from a character that’s dealing in the darker areas of NCAA athletics. None of these things flat-out ruin the experience, but they’re the kind of moments which take you out of the world that’s been created.
There were many moments in National Champion that I can say, unequivocally, I didn’t understand. I just didn’t. The references to real-world players or events, the player stats, and a number of other things presented by characters primary or supporting. This didn’t make the rest of the film difficult to process as the performances, direction, and a particularly thrilling score from composer Jonathan Sanford (Good on Paper) helped convey the weight of the moment, the significance that my lack of experience couldn’t grasp. As such, I was truly taken by the film, sucked-in for its entire runtime as it balanced comedy and drama on a pin’s head. Though some of the issues within National Champions are seeing real-world changes, it doesn’t mean that the conversation is over. One need only look over at the documentary LFG (2021) to see that there continues to be disparity at all levels of sport. As the film proclaims, it sometimes only takes one act by someone with nothing to lose to change it all for those who follow. As the film releases at just before Christmas, perhaps that message will hit someone with an open heart, inspiring the good work to continue.
In theaters December 10th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official National Champions website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.