If recent memory serves, it’s tough to put a play onscreen without it feeling like a play onscreen. Hit films from last year like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami” featured stellar performances, but struggled to break out of their singular location narratives. “Tick Tick Boom” chose to embrace the artifice and shoot obvious theater sets, and basically no one can compete with the way Steven Spielberg’s camera dances in the new “West Side Story.” While the dramatic conflict is ripe in “National Champions,” a timely sports drama based on the play by Adam Mervis, the movie fails to rise above its weighty premise. Football fans, likely the film’s target audience, will be disappointed to find no actual football occurs in the movie. Still, with complex characters and fantastic performances, “National Champions” offers a vital take on a developing issue.
Stephan James leads the charge as LaMarcus James, a quarterback who heeds a call to social justice, egged on and supported by his religious friend Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig). Opening with a 72-hour countdown to the National Championship game, the film opens with the two friends reciting scripture across their gray hotel room, psyching each other out for what’s to come. Unbeknownst to Coach Lazor (a well-cast J.K. Simmons), his star QB is about to send a tweet that will throw his weekend — and hopes for his first title — into chaos.
When LaMarcus announces he will not play the championship game until the NCAA and its affiliates end their practice of unpaid labor and compensate all student athletes, the NCAA and its powerful boosters spring into action, scrambling to save their biggest moneymaker of the year. This cabal of panicky donors and executives includes heavy hitters played by Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Donovan, and David Koechner. Silently observing in the background is Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba), a steely fixer and crisis manager who’ll stop at nothing to subdue dissension in the ranks.
The action propels forward at a satisfying clip as the countdown to the final ticks on, with screechy music choices amping up the pressure. The movie milks drama out of the search for LaMarcus and Emmett, who make a big show of wrapping their cell phones in tinfoil, frequently moving hotel rooms, and traveling by taxi on circuitous back roads. They narrowly evade detection as they scurry from room to room with small bribes of pizza and Jordans, enlisting their fellow teammates in the fight for compensation. LaMarcus takes on the role of a preacher, with Emmett as his trusty hype man, rallying his followers with personal stories of their injuries and lack of health insurance. He makes a powerful argument, but will it be enough to reach his goals?
As with most theatrical adaptations, the movie’s structure could have used some editing from the stage to the screen. “National Champions” sees itself as a prestige ensemble drama, where it should have been a more focused story about LaMarcus as David going up agains the Goliath of his coach and the fat cats. A disjointed sub-plot involving the coach’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth) and her affair with a poetry professor (Timothy Olyphant) ties in to the ending, but to diminishing effect. Despite Simmons’ best efforts, Coach Lazor never comes through as very sympathetic, and his relationship with LaMarcus is never fleshed out enough to pack an emotional punch.
Aduba’s character poses the only somewhat convincing argument against paying the players, when she reveals that she once was a college athlete on scholarship. What happens to any college sport that isn’t men’s football or basketball once the NCAA spends all its money on salaries and healthcare for its money-makers? This monologue, and LaMarcus’s rousing sermons, are the most impactful vestiges of the script’s original play form, and the likely reason the project was able to attract to many fine actors.
Visually, director Ric Roman Waugh (“Greenland”) casts a shadowy pall over the proceedings, coating every shot in a cold glassy grey if not literally, then in feeling. The styling of a big-whig party appears surprisingly dated, every dark suit and red tie combo making it look more like a 2010 convention than a glitzy party for billionaires. Maybe football donors don’t have great style in real life, but this is still a movie that looks like a network TV show.
The issues raised by “National Champions” deserve attention, and the idea of a Colin Kaepernick of college football is an engaging premise wrestled with honestly here. Other than some inspired performances, mainly that of James and Aduba, the movie sags under its weighty subject matter.
STX Entertainment will release “National Champions” in theaters on Friday, December 10.