NATIONAL CHAMPIONS movie poster | ©2021 STX Films

NATIONAL CHAMPIONS movie poster | ©2021 STX Films

Rating: R
Stars: Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristen Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba
Writer: Adam Mervis
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Distributor: STX Films
Release Date: December 10, 2021

 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS is structured like a legal thriller, although we never see the inside of a courtroom. Technically, it’s an issue-driven drama about football and labor. This may seem an odd combination, but writer Adam Mervis has a lot to say on the subjects, and director Ric Roman Waugh makes it feel tense and suspenseful.

There has been a lot of national discussion over whether college athletes should get paid. NCAA football and basketball stars do, after all, make billions for the sponsors, while the players don’t get so much as medical insurance. Except for the few who make their way to the professional leagues, the student athletes have strained (and sometimes wrecked) their bodies for four years. Sometimes, they come out of the experience with not even a degree to show for it, as game practice tends to eat into their study hours.

In other words, there’s a case to be made that some wealthy individuals and institutions are gaining a fortune each year from unpaid work. In NATIONAL CHAMPIONS, the matter is made immediate by the prospect of protest.

This, however, is no ordinary demonstration, objection, or even lawsuit. Seventy-three hours before kickoff for the college football national title, being played in New Orleans, two college football players make a stand.

The unquestioned star of the Missouri Wolves is Heisman trophy winner LeMarcus James (Stephan James). He and his best friend and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) room together, pray together, and quote Tarantino movies together.

LeMarcus and Emmett also jointly decide that they’re going to sit out the upcoming game unless they and their peers get paid. LeMarcus calls the current system ““capitalism at its finest, greed at its worst.”

Since LeMarcus is the headline player, this throws the Wolves organization, and indeed the NCAA reps, into panic mode. They try to control the situation by any means necessary, including bribery and blackmail.

One of the people hardest hit by this is Wolves Coach Lazor (J.K. Simmons). A man who equates football with life itself, he is slow to grasp why anyone with the chance to play wouldn’t do so. (His world view has also damaged his relationship with his wife Bailey, played by Kristen Chenoweth.)

There is a fair amount of talk here, but the characters are all articulate, thanks to Mervis’s intelligent writing and the top-flight cast. NATIONAL CHAMPIONS also presents multiple sides of the story, with Uzo Aduba as a tough but not heartless lawyer explaining how paying players could harm a lot of impoverished people currently helped by the system as it now exists.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONS tries to keep focus on the matter of pay for college athletes, which is another way of saying that the film puts Black and white people on both sides of the matter. There is acknowledgement of the fact that those who profit from NCAA sports are mostly white and the players are largely people of color, but racism is not the central topic here.

Director Waugh keeps NATIONAL CHAMPIONS visually interesting and dramatic, knowing how to give the actors their due. He gets us to invest in what’s happening with these people, as well as helping us understand their passions.

James has bone-deep rectitude, and Simmons is magnetic. Ludwig provides unobtrusive but persuasive support. Other members of the excellent cast include Lil Rel Howery, Jeffrey Donovan, Tim Blake Nelson, Timothy Olyphant, David Koechner, and Andrew Bachelor.

Surprisingly, for a movie that is nominally about football, the only field action we see is brief glimpses on a television. But then, NATIONAL CHAMPIONS is mainly about what people will do in the name of fairness and money. This makes it compelling even to those who don’t care about the sport. For football fans, however, quite a few players and sportscasters show up as themselves here, including Russell Wilson, Malcolm Jenkins, Mike Greenberg, Steve Levy, Michael Smith, Jemele Hill, Michael Holley, Taylor Rooks, Nick Wright, Karl-Anthony Towns, and French Montana.

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