PG Score: 6/10
Though its messaging is often fumbled, National Champions shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the darkest corners of collegiate athletics. Director Ric Roman Waugh (Shot Caller and Greenland) brings attention to a timely issue, but his execution falls short of the goal line.
The plot centers on star college quarterback, LeMarcus James (Stephan James), and his teammate, Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), as they spark a boycott three days before the national championship game, demanding fair compensation for student-athletes. With an exorbitant amount of money and numerous powerful reputations on the line, the stakes are at an unprecedented high.
Waugh raises difficult questions as he attempts to thoroughly examine this important topic. He shows a range of perspectives from characters whose stances vary mostly due to their professions or individual circumstances. The unsavory lengths that the parties opposing the players’ strike go to protect their investments are also emphasized. National Champions is at its best when it is exploring the bigger picture from all angles. This is a complicated subject that deals with massive financial implications for multiple demographics, and after further investigation, a morally sound path is harder to uncover. He does not dig as deep as he should have, but Waugh succeeds in showing the solution is not as simple as it may seem at first.
Unfortunately, the thought-provoking themes are diluted by Adam Mervis’ shaky screenplay. The dialogue is typically clunky, which removes some of the steam behind the arguments coming from both sides. Furthermore, there is a subplot that serves no purpose other than distracting the audience from the main point of the movie. The premise is intriguing, but the delivery leaves much to be desired.
Despite being somewhat squandered by the uneven writing and direction, the cast is packed with star power. In addition to James and Ludwig, the talented roster features the likes of J.K. Simmons, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba, Kristin Chenowith, Jeffrey Donovan, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, and David Koechner. Stephan James gives a heartfelt performance as LeMarcus, the leader of the movement. Heels star Alexander Ludwig complements him as the fiercely loyal Emmett. Simmons does the best he can with a lackluster script in his portrayal of Coach James Lazor. The Oscar winner is held back by a one-dimensional character that alters between tantrums and bland monologues. Aduba is the highlight as the enigmatic Katherine Poe. The three-time Emmy winner delivers a balanced performance and showcases her excellent dramatic abilities.
In his most ambitious film to date, Ric Roman Waugh stokes a fiery debate within the world of college sports. While the final product is the epitome of a mixed bag, National Champions still makes enough noise to justify grabbing a seat…just maybe in the nosebleeds.