A righteous argument that student-athletes deserve better is ill-served by a flat film that’s more focused on making its point than telling a story to make that point.
If you haven’t been keeping up with college sports lately, you might have missed some of the recent headlines about the fight for student-athletes to get paid. The argument boils down to this: what right do we have to insist college ball is for amateurs when it’s morphed into a multi-billion-dollar business? Is it fair to deny those actually doing the work a piece of the pie? National Champions doesn’t just aim to explore that question, it makes a firm case that players should unionize. As a primer on the issues, it’s excellent. As a movie, it fails.
Based on the play of the same name, National Champions is less a college football movie and more a movie about the money-making machine that is the (here unnamed) NCAA. Instead of focusing on the championship game of the title, it follows star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) as he leads a massive public protest, refusing to play until his requests for fair treatment and compensation are granted, getting anyone he can to join him in the walk-out.
The setup naturally lends itself to drama, and the college football setting makes it wholly unique, so why does it all fall so terribly, terribly flat? James has proven himself with his soulful turn in If Beale Street Could Talk and his breakout role in Selma, but he struggles to bring LeMarcus to life. The script shoulders much of the blame though—it would rather have him speak in grand speeches and monologues than act like a person.
J.K. Simmons plays LeMarcus’s coach, James Lazor, but while he fits the role well, he’s not doing anything here he hasn’t done in a more interesting way before. Kristin Chenoweth plays his wife and in a baffling subplot, Timothy Olyphant plays her lover, both of whom are utterly wasted in roles that honestly have no real need to exist (other than as an incredibly contrived plot device that doesn’t come into play until the final act).
There is so much writer Adam Mervis (who also wrote the play) has to say, but I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better as an essay in The Atlantic, rather than a feature-length film. What’s genuinely impressive about National Champions is how clearly and explicitly Mervis makes his case. Understanding student athletes’ fight for pay as part of the labor movement, the same one that’s been picking up steam in industries nationwide, is a brilliant re-framing of an issue that could get bogged down in the idiosyncrasies and minutiae of college athletics.
In LeMarcus’s impassioned pleas to his teammates and the media alike, there’s an intense focus on the future health of players: “12,000 of us participate in a multi-billion-dollar industry that won’t even give us health insurance,” he says at one crucial moment. Considering the sorry state of healthcare in this country as well as the now well-documented adverse health effects of the game itself, it’s a point well made.
But these lines feel like moments from a debate team or an opinion segment on the nightly news. As dramatic scenes, they’re stripped of drama due to the ensemble playing mouthpieces rather than characters. Ric Roman Waugh’s direction is functional but no more. The end result is a film that leaves both its performers and its audience very little to work with.
It’s a shame. National Champions has an important point to make, and it makes it passionately. But in failing to bring that same passion to its characterization and craft, it ultimately fails as a film.
National Champions is now playing in theaters.