2021, R, 116 min. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Starring Stephan James, Alexander Ludwig, J.K. Simmons, Kristin Chenoweth, Jeffrey Donovan, Timothy Olyphant, David Koechner, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 10, 2021
The NCAA is a scam built on the bodies of student athletes and fueled by the dream of pro-ball fortune. We all know it. As the enraged LeMarcus James (James) roars to his fellow players in a hotel in New Orleans, every year there are 12,000 draft eligible football players coming out of college, and 300 of them end up in the NFL. Maybe a few more go to Canada or get coaching gigs (I knew one ex-Longhorn that ended up coaching rugby in New Zealand), but most end up with a wafer-thin résumé, a GPA padded with pass/fail classes, and a bunch of nagging injuries that will plague them for the rest of their lives. At the same time, college coaches and NCAA executives pull down millions of dollars. Don’t believe me? Maybe actual NFL players, including Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and Saints defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, who appear in Ric Roman Waugh’s football drama National Champions, can convince you. Or maybe it will be the way that NCAA President Mike Titus (Donovan) flatly intones, “The American people would rather let Missouri fall into the sea than give up Saturday afternoon, drunk and roaring for their alma mater.” He’s not wrong.
Adapted by Adam Mervis from his unproduced play, National Champions understands that the least interesting part of sports when it comes to the big screen is the actual game (you wanna watch passes and interceptions, get an ESPN subscription). This is a bottle drama across hotel suites and conference rooms, with sealed room machinations counterbalanced by motivational speeches, and no one delivers a motivational speech like Coach Lazor (Simmons, fiery and complicated, broken by the same system that’s made him rich). His plans for another national championship are threatened by LeMarcus’ sudden revelation that he’s orchestrating a players’ strike.
A high-stakes workplace drama, National Champions is Austin-based Waugh’s return to big-budget activist cinema. It’s closer to his indictment of the criminal justice system in Snitch and Shot Caller than his more action-friendly fare with Gerard Butler, like apocalyptic road trip Greenland. Not that it’s a complete break: In his other Butler collaboration, Angel Has Fallen, the hero is a banged-up mass of injuries and neuroses. LeMarcus’ best friend, Emmett Sunday (Ludwig), makes his introduction in the hotel room he shares with the future NFL top pick by making his elbow click like it’s got cogs. He, and the other 11,700 players, are why LeMarcus is making his stand.
It's Waugh’s most didactic film to date – a necessity, because there’s so much to unpack about exactly what’s going on with the plight of student-athletes. Mervis isn’t afraid to put all the dirty secrets and implications on the table, from the role of race to how players are quite happy to be part of the current system as long as it benefits them. There’re a lot of discussions about the cons and establishment-pushed pros of the system as it stands, but there’s also raw power at play. It’s a feverishly paced and chillingly executed balancing act of boosters, players, coaches, C-suite execs, reporters, and blogs, where rules and morality are flexible. Even a seeming aside between Chenoweth as Lazor’s alienated wife and Olyphant as an academic plays into this increasingly complex (but not convoluted) game of brinksmanship. It’s bleak and brutal, and Waugh’s cold tone (a definite throwback to Shot Caller) leaves no one with clean hands. But as a testament to the costs of a noble sacrifice in the face of institutional inhumanity, it’s as vital as any of his earlier films.
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National Champions, Ric Roman Waugh, Stephan James, Alexander Ludwig, J.K. Simmons, Kristin Chenoweth, Jeffrey Donovan, Timothy Olyphant, David Koechner, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor