National Champions isn’t even good enough to make the playoffs.
Adapted from the Adam Mervis play of the same name, Ric Roman Waugh’s National Champions follows a nascent labor movement in collegiate American football, with a young quarterback on the precipice of a star career embarking on a strike just days before the biggest game of the season. Desperately trying to convince other players to join him and ensure that his gamble pays off, while his enemies try to foil him at every turn, quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) is caught in a battle of both wits and nerve as the game draws closer. Given an ensemble cast including JK Simmons, Uzo Aduba, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, and Jeffrey Donovan, and an intriguing up-and-comer in the lead (James is only a few years removed from his breakout in If Beale Street Could Talk), it’s a particular pity that Waugh torpedoes the opportunity with a directorial approach that is, both formally and in its emotional execution, as dull as dishwater.
That’s not to say that National Champions is without entirely without strengths, or at least some baseline of competence. Even in spite of feeling segmented into neat little pairs (likely due to COVID restrictions), the cast largely delivers where needed, with a few minor exceptions, but very few actually excel or impress. Chenoweth and Olyphant are particularly wasted as background players, barely allowed out of their hotel bedroom set long enough to do anything of worth, and not exactly enthralling when together. Neither is allowed to exercise either their comedic chops or any dramatic facility, and instead are relegated to clumsily-written exposition roles with little room to do anything other than facilitate the odd contrivance, with Chenoweth (who excels in broad comedy and camp) feeling particularly miscast. Leading man Stephan James is similarly wasted, washed out in the ensemble, and with very few opportunities to communicate his character’s depth. Waugh makes a few initial attempts at reminding the audience that beyond James’s and Alexander Ludwig’s physiques, the players here are still only teenagers or young adults, but quickly discards this, seeming happier to use James as a figurehead than as a young man whose activism is but one facet of his character. Simmons and Aduba, on the other hand, give what are the only memorable performances of the film, being gifted monologues that are no doubt the centerpiece of Mervis’s play, and one can only imagine how much each actor could have soared with a more ambitious director. Perhaps it’s to Waugh’s credit that he doesn’t try to add needless frills to these scenes, allowing the monologues to stand on the strength of their writing, but among the rest of what is ultimately a very flat film, it’s tough to champion this restraint as more than more bland decision-making.
Aduba and Simmons’ performances, on the other hand, are a testament to the thoughtfulness of Mervis’ script, which is unafraid of thorny nuance, and gives equal standing to all its contradictory arguments. Issues of labor exploitation exist in shades of grey that are too often either sanded down or turned to melodrama by mainstream cinema, but Mervis is impressively fearless in his approach to this subject matter and puts considerable effort into exploring the intersection between sports, racism, capitalism, higher education, and even slavery. In a mainstream American movie, this sort of subject matter necessitates a kind of bravery, and that neither Waugh nor Mervis tried to dumb it down for an audience is admirable. However, what might work within the conventions of the stage can come across as overly didactic in film, and instead of allowing the passion and anger inherent to these issues to actually emerge, Waugh minimizes to the extent that parts of the film feel akin to a lecture. When the thriller elements of National Champions make an appearance in the third act, it feels less like a tightly-wound corporate thriller and more like a brief attempt at a plot to tie together the last two-thirds of flat didacticism. In the end, the film can’t help but trip over its own feet, with an eleventh-hour attempt to add finicky plot contrivances illuminating what was really wrong with the movie in the first place — that Waugh’s paint-by-numbers style is thoroughly unsuited to directing something that could, in other hands, have been bursting with passion and genuine progressive rhetoric.