National Champions

National Champions ★★★½

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh (Greenland, Angel Has Fallen), and adapted from a stage play written by Adam Mervis (21 Bridges), National Champions follows star quarterback Demarcus James (Sephan James) and his teammate/best friend Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) as they go rogue and  boycott the national championship less than 72 hours before kickoff.

Following the promising lead of other excellent behind-the-scenes sports movies (High Flying Bird, Draft Day, etc), Mervis constructs a savvy and cynical take on the exploitative dynamics of collegiate sports. Tidily scripted & sufficiently nuanced, the film plays out like the stage play it is. Most of the scenes are confined to a single hotel — with a few detours. The staging and pacing are both tethered to the big & complex dialectic Mervis is hellbent on getting across, and thus suffers in terms of suspense and crescendoing tension.

Nevertheless, as an indictment of the ethics of the NCAA and collegiate athletics (which rakes in billions of dollars of revenue without paying its amateur athletes for their contributions — beyond a scholarship, that is), it checks all the boxes. Taking a multi-pronged approach and ultimately elevating a Marxist stance of class/caste/hierarchy over racial differences (after some initial contretemps about college football as a modern slave factory that breeds a plantation mentality), National Champions sharply examines the controversial and nuanced ethics of using players to make money without recompense.

Despite its over reliance on talkative set pieces, I appreciated the film’s commitment to investigate multiple levels/factions of this inequitable system; we hear from the sympathetic perspectives of coaches (J.K. Simmons as James Lazor & Lil Rel Howery as Ronnie Dunn), donors (Tim Blake Nelson as Rodger Cummings & King Bach as Taylor Sheridan), NCAA execs (the commissioner Jeffrey Donovan as Mark Titus and Uzo Aduba as Katherine Poe), and of course, the players. There is even a key subplot with Coach Lazor's wife (Kristin Chenoweth as Bailey) and a philosophy professor named Elliott Schmidt (Timothy Olymphant) that is both soap opera-level silly and intellectually engaging. 

Unfortunately, with so many moving parts, melodramatic subplots, and absurdly serendipitous twists, the narrative feels a bit overstuffed and forced at times. And the finale introduces a gratuitous McGuffin that left me quite ambivalent and annoyed — it felt like a cop out. 

Misgivings aside, I highly recommend this too-quickly-shelved late-2021 release, especially given the relevance of the subject — just last year, multiple states introduced new laws allowing some players to make money off their image and likeness (NIL). It’s a solid flick for anyone who likes topical political thrillers with rousing speeches and stirring political discourse. Check out my complete thoughts on the latest episode of Cinematic Underdogs!

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