Aided by solid performances, National Champions has a great history, but ultimately its individual parts are not enough to score the winning touchdown.
On paper, director Ric Roman Waugh National champions it’s the kind of inspiring sports story designed to excite audiences. It has the look of a movie that was ripped from the headlines, though instead it’s based on a play by Adam Mervis, who also wrote the script here. National champions It has a compelling and timely story at its core, and when you choose to focus on that, it can be electric. Unfortunately, he’s too often bogged down by unnecessary plots and underdeveloped relationships. Aided by solid performances, National champions It has a great history, but ultimately, its individual parts are not enough to score the winning touchdown.
Three days before the 2022 National College Football Playoffs Championship, one of the star quarterbacks playing in the game, LeMarcus James (Stephan James), announces that he will go on strike alongside his best friend, teammate Emmett Sunday ( Alexander Ludwig). Your reasoning? The NCAA does not pay its student athletes despite making billions of dollars from their hard work each year. LeMarcus wants an organizational change and will do everything he can to achieve it, including launching the game that could secure his NFL career. As everyone from his head coach (JK Simmons) to the NCAA-chosen coach (Uzo Aduba) tries to nip the blow in the bud, LeMarcus must confront his true motivations if he is to be successful.
The issue of student athletes being compensated for their work is a hotly debated topic today, and it even saw some major breakthroughs this year when students won the right to be paid for their name, image, and likeness. It can be easy for an outsider to scoff at a topic like this, but National champions makes a compelling case for why college athletes deserve adequate pay and benefits. This is demonstrated through LeMarcus’s efforts to win over his peers, going from room to room and giving passionate speeches about their rights. With the assured performance of James at its center, National champions it is strongest when it focuses on this thorny and timely issue.
Unfortunately, Mervis’s script doesn’t go above the surface. The presence of a booster club, so eager to support the team when a victory could further fill their bank accounts, suggests how deep the problem is within these institutions, but it eventually fades into the background. LeMarcus’s actions rank as the ultimate betrayal against his coach, James Lazor, but their relationship is forceful rather than show; Various characters comment on how LeMarcus and Lazor have a long history and deep respect for each other, but audiences never see evidence of this. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about National champions it is the frequency with which the conflict is broken in the first hour. A plot involving Lazor’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover (Timothy Olyphant) brings the momentum of LeMarcus’s first few moves down, giving the film some pacing issues Waugh can’t get over. Chenoweth and Olyphant are always welcome as screen presences, and Mervis tries to tie them into the larger strike plot later in the film. Unfortunately, it does not have the desired effect.
With so many talented artists put together, there is no doubt that National champions it has a certain appeal. And indeed, the cast is top-notch. The movie would not be successful without James, who must keep LeMarcus’s true motivations locked in until the final act. Simmons brings his usual cheeky intensity to Lazor’s part, though he also manages to nail the quieter moments when the coach finds himself losing control of the situation. Still, if there is an MVP in National Champions, is the Emmy Aduba winner. As the restorative frost Katherine Poe, Aduba keeps her cards close to her vest, initially looking like a ruthless player who is willing to get her hands dirty. However, a pivotal scene late in the film’s run exposes Katherine’s true feelings, and Aduba brings a devastating ferocity to her outburst. It’s a shame National champions it takes so long to present it properly, although it certainly packs a punch before you even say a word.
Usually, National champions You know what beats you need to hit to get your points across. Waugh draws emotion from all the right parts, and effectively sends the message that college athletes shouldn’t be overlooked. It can get audiences, who may come into the movie less informed on the subject, talking, but the movie falters at times when it should be moving forward. National champions It has some winning elements, but the overall execution leaves a little to be desired.
National champions hits theaters on December 10. It is 116 minutes long and is rated R for its comprehensive language and sexual references.