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National Champions (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Stephan James, JK Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba, Russell Wilson, Malcolm Jenkins, Jemele Hill, Mike Greenberg, French Montana, Karl-Anthony Towns and Steve Levy.

Screenplay by Adam Mervis.

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.

Distributed by STXfilms. 116 minutes. Rated R.

National Champions is a movie about big-time college football in which not a single down is played, not a single ball is snapped, nor does a single fan cheer on their team to victory. So, if your football movie is not about the game of football, what is it about?

It is about the business of college football.

National Champions takes on some serious, complicated issues about modern-day athletics – most specifically the controversy of whether or not student athletes should be paid for their efforts, or if a free education is enough, as has always been the stance of the NCAA.

Like I said, this is challenging, complex subject, one that has some very valid arguments on both sides and the real truth probably comes down somewhere in the middle. However, National Champions obviously has its own agenda, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s fine for a movie to have a strong opinion on something.

I may even agree with many of the points being argued here. I just wish it weren’t done in such a heavy-handed way, and that our hero – a Heisman Trophy-winning college athlete named LeMarcus James (Stephan James), who decides to go on strike, refusing to play in the biggest (and possibly last) game of his career – wasn’t such a sanctimonious and humorless martyr for the cause.

His foil is his coach, James Lazor (yes, that’s really the character name). As played by JK Simmons, Lazor is a flawed, passionate, slightly burnt-out man whose opportunity to play a bowl game for the championship is put in danger when his star athlete goes into hiding on Bowl weekend. Lazor is stung by the betrayal by someone he considered a son but does also see many of his points. However, he is put into an awkward position between the university, the NCAA, lawyers and his players.

Honestly Lazor is much more interesting as a character than James is, simply because he is so imperfect. He’s long ago lost his hunger for the game. He’s constantly working, even when he isn’t. He’s rich beyond his wildest dreams but has no real quality of life. He’s not even aware how unhappy his wife (Kristin Chenoweth) is in their marriage. He covets his players’ youth. He can be prodded into making stupid gaffes on camera.

On the other hand, National Champions treats James as infallible. Multiple characters tell him how important his stance is and how brave he is. James is also apparently suddenly a fiery public speaker – reeling off sermons which are profound and articulate (and honestly just a bit smug) off the top of his head. He’s also apparently a genius in social media and public relations.

Much more interesting on his side is his teammate and partner in the strike, Emmett (Alexander Ludwig) – a much lesser player who has no hopes of a big NFL contract. The other truly fascinating character here is Katherine (Uzo Aduba), a dirty trickster hired by the executives to spin for them and slime LeMarcus to win the PR war and get the game back on track, but who has a more nuanced understanding of both sides of the conflict than most anyone else here.

If National Champions has more multi-dimensional characters like the coach and these two, it would make its argument a lot more viable. More to the point, it would be a lot easier to sit through as a film. National Champions has some very interesting ideas and some very important societal points to make, but in the end, the hail Mary pass it is trying to make sails just out of reach.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: December 8, 2021.

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