Review by Sean Boelman
The production timeline that National Champions has had is absolutely insane, from being announced in April of this year to a release a mere eight months later. And while the cards were stacked against Ric Roman Waugh’s sports-centric boardroom drama, it’s a surprisingly great film thanks to the perfect storm of its elements working together.
The movie follows a college football player who shocks the world when he calls for a boycott right before the national championship game, and the people in the NCAA who have to scramble to fix the mess he created. Although the film’s story is itself a fictional story, it is certainly at least inspired by the real-life struggle that student athletes have had in fighting for fair compensation.
A majority of the movie’s substance comes down to the argument of the ethics of the scenario. There isn't a whole lot of subtlety in the script — some characters outright ask some of the most obvious questions and are met by a room of silence, showing that there are no obvious answers — but it’s a film that very angrily challenges the status quo, and works for it.
The thing that is ultimately the movie’s downfall is that it tries to juggle too many pieces. Although things are kept at a high level of intensity throughout the almost two-hour runtime, one can’t help but feel like some of the detours that the film takes are unnecessary. We are supposed to care about every player, coach, and executive involved in this situation, and that is just impossible to do.
And perhaps more damningly, this comes at the expense of the development of the protagonist. The all-star football quarterback is a traditionally likable trope, and this character is no exception, but in trying to make us empathize with the rest of the people involved with this situation, the movie loses track of what it was that made us care about it in the first place.
The ensemble of the film is truly exceptional, although there are a few people who are wasted in smaller roles. Kristen Chenowith, David Koechner, Lil Rel Howery, Andrew Bachelor, and Timothy Olyphant are barely in the movie and don’t make much of a splash. That said, some other performers truly shine. Stephan James is obviously great in the lead role. J.K. Simmons does some of his best work since Whiplash as the coach trying to mediate between the two sides. And Uzo Aduba is astounding as the legal counsel, having both a big supporting actress moment and many restrained ones.
It’s clear that this film was made in a rush because of how hurried everything seems from a technical level, but there are still some very good things going on here. For a movie that is largely a bunch of meetings, Waugh is able to create an unexpected level of suspense and anxiety throughout.
National Champions does end up feeling a bit overstuffed, but it is much better than anyone expected it to be given the fact that it quite literally came out of nowhere. It’s one of the better sports movies of the year, and it doesn’t even contain that much in the way of actual sports.
National Champions hits theaters on December 10.