Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Premise: Days before the NCAA National Football Championship game, one team’s quarterback (Stephan James) announces that he is boycotting the game unless the NCAA agrees to pay the players and make other concessions. This begins a standoff that threatens to derail the championship game.
What Works: National Champions is less a sports film and more a political thriller and a moral drama. This isn’t Rudy or even Draft Day. This is Norma Rae. Understood that way, National Champions generally succeeds. The film has an intriguing premise with the star player of a Division I football team initiating a labor strike hours before the championship game. That sends his coach and NCAA officials scrambling to contain the crisis. The most intriguing part of the film and the aspect that’s done so well is the game of chess between the quarterback played by Stephan James and the coaches and officials. James’ character publicly submits a list of demands and uses sports news outlets and social media to advance his cause. The NCAA responds in kind and the film’s depiction of that organization is savage. The drama acknowledges race and class and the way those elements figure into debates about college athletics but does so in a way that is essential to the story. The characters are interesting and complex and face difficult ethical scenarios. Stephan James’ character realizes that his activism might cause pain for his fellow teammates and he must justify what he’s doing. J.K. Simmons plays the coach who faces a myriad of personal and professional crises. He’s clearly troubled by the NCAA’s response but he also goes along with it. Also impressive is Uzo Aduba as the lawyer doing the NCAA’s dirty work. Her political strategizing alternates with moments of ethical calculation that make her an unpredictable presence in the film.
What Doesn’t: The technical qualities of National Champions are mixed. Many scenes take place in dark rooms and the inadequate lighting occasionally results in a muddy image. This is especially an issue for the actors of color whose faces are sometimes obscured by the lighting scheme. National Champions is a film with a political agenda. It is clearly on the side of the striking players and the film struggles with didacticism. National Champions is adapted from a stage play and that’s evident in the film’s reliance on dialogue. The filmmakers don’t really visualize or dramatize the conflict. Instead, National Champions consists of lectures with the characters speechifying and repeatedly making the same argument. The ending is a bit underwhelming. Instead of resolving the central conflict or bringing it to a meaningful conclusion, the story just stops.
DVD extras: In theaters.
Bottom Line: Although it doesn’t quite stick the landing, National Champions is a compelling and thoughtful movie about the debates over college sports. The film mostly succeeds in its rhetorical aims while offering a complex moral drama.
Episode: #883 (December 19, 2021)