Sports films, like most films, like to inform, inspire, and entertain. They usually are based on some legendary athlete or some underdog story of some kind. Part of that is the actual playing of said sport, whether it’s baseball, basketball, or in the case of National Champions, football. The thing is this film doesn’t have a single scene in it that shows football being played. That, believe it or not, is a good thing, because it’s a great film without that.
National Champions is about two college football teams that are about to play for the college football championship at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana when the star quarterback (Stephan James, If Beale Street Could Talk) of one of the teams drops a bombshell on Twitter. He and his teammate and friend (Alexander Ludwig) decide they aren’t going to play in the game unless some ultimatums are met regarding the treatment of collegiate athletes and how they are compensated for their involvement in whatever sport they are competing in.
This decision surprised and shocked the entire country including the QB’s head coach (J.K. Simmons). He’s a mix of Nick Saban, Alabama Head coach, and Steve Spurrier, ex Florida Gators head coach and Heisman Trophy winner. He’s very surprised by this stance his players are taking. He gets called in to talk to the higher-ups in the conference, the NCAA, and tv executives. Boosters also reached out to him with their displeasure with this choice by the team’s star player. This choice goes beyond x’s and o’s, though, and the coach finds out that very quickly. It’s about basic human rights.
This film has quite a few twists and turns in it. The group of people with higher powers take action of their own and enlist a power broker (Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black). She is sitting quietly in the back of the room as ala Benoit Blanc in Knives Out. When she’s set into motion, she’s like a tornado. People don’t know what has hit them. She is very destructive to whoever she comes into contact with. This causes problems for the QB, his teammates, and the head coach. There is a scene where Aduba gives her Oscar moment that is very powerful.
Along with Aduba and the others that I’ve mentioned, there are other actors who give notable performances in the film. Timothy Oliphant is a professor that has a connection to the QB, Kristin Chenoweth plays the head coach’s wife, Tim Blake Nelson is a team booster with ties to both the QB and the head coach, Lil Rel Howery is an assistant coach who’s caught in the middle of everything, and David Koechner is the head of the conference, which is a little like the SEC. This cast is stacked with a lot of big and little screen veterans. They are all superb in their given roles in this great film.
Ric Roman Waugh has had a few films under his belt. Most of them are films with little consequence, like his last film Greenland or sequels such as Angel Has Fallen and prison films like Felon and Shot Caller. National Champions has more substance than any of his other films. It has some great performances by Aduba, Simmons, and James. The script by Adam Mervis is incredible and touches on a lot of things many people are concerned about in our society. This is one of the best sports movies in recent memory that doesn’t have any real sports being played in it.
Dan Skip Allen
Founder/EIC disappointment media