As timely as last night’s episode of “ESPN Sports Center,” and as riveting as a well-crafted tick-tock suspenser, “National Champions” adroitly avoids most of the pitfalls common to conventional “message movies” by raising and debating issues in the context of a solid and involving drama that can be enjoyed even by people who couldn’t tell an offside kick from a cheerleader’s cartwheel. It’s intent on exposing the inner workings of college football, but don’t expect a lot of gridiron action here. Except for a few — very few — highlight clips sprinkled here and there, the focus remains on the interactions of players, coaches, media scrums, well-heeled boosters, freelance fixers, and NCAA movers and shakers during the countdown to the fictional Snickers College Football Championship.
Three days before the big event in New Orleans, a national title clash pitting the undefeated Wolves against the 13-1 Cougars, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) slips away from the swanky hotel where he and his teammates are ensconced and throws a spanner in the works. Specifically, he issues — initially through social media, then through carefully timed interviews — a call for his fellow Wolves and their opponents to boycott the championship game unless the NCAA agrees to start compensating players as university employees, not “amateur” athletes.
LeMarcus is an intelligent, charismatic and media-savvy young man, effortlessly referencing everything from pertinent Biblical passages to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” while making his case to teammates, other players, and an overwhelmingly sympathetic public. Repeatedly, he hammers away at the injustice of enabling universities to make billions off the labors of their football players while those athletes, albeit rewarded with valuable scholarships, receive few crumbs from that huge pie.
And because he’s clearly risking a multi-million-dollar payday as a potentially top-ranked NFL draft pick — at one point, he jokes that, after this, he’ll be lucky to land a spot in the Canadian Football League — he is all the more persuasive as a selfless revolutionary. Naturally, that makes him all the more worrisome, if not downright terrifying, for his longtime coach, James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), and the upper echelon of the NCAA.
Working from a smart script by Adam Mervis (“21 Bridges”), director Ric Roman Waugh manages — with the invaluable assistance of Khalid Mohtaseb’s fluid cinematography, Gabriel Fleming’s nimble editing, and Jonathan Sanford’s propulsive musical score — to give what is basically a string of scenes involving people talking in rooms (and on rooftops) the same sense of propulsive narrative drive he brought to his thrillers “Snitch” and “Angel Has Fallen.”
A goodly portion of “National Champions” details the frantic confabs between Coach Lazor and others intent on locating LeMarcus and his buddy Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) — a journeyman tight end who freely admits his NFL prospects are slim and nonexistent — as the two teammates relocate from one strategic location after another while LeMarcus proselytizes in person or online.
But the movie also keeps an eye on other characters with skin in the game, including sybaritic team booster Rodger Cummings (Tim Blake Nelson, stealing scenes with a wink and a nod), Assistant Coach Dunn (Lil Rel Howery) — who’s offered the opportunity to lead the Wolves if Coach Lazor can’t or won’t — and Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba), a ruthless NCAA henchwoman who, if worst come to worst, is willing to reveal (or plant) image-sullying skeletons in LeMarcus’ closet.
For a lengthy stretch, a subplot involving an affair between Coach Lazor’s wife, Bailey (Kristin Chenoweth), and a smoothly charming professor (Timothy Olyphant) comes across as needless padding. Eventually, however, there’s a blindsiding payoff to this pas de deux that, while not entirely unexpected, is quite satisfying.
James offers an impressively implosive performance as LeMarcus, whose motives aren’t entirely clear until the very end, and he develops an amusing playful and bro-centric give-and-take with co-star Ludwig, especially when their characters joke around while swapping dialogue from “Pulp Fiction” and “Tombstone.”
Aduba is galvanizing when Poe offers an impassioned defense of the NCAA system, questioning how it might affect funding of less well-attended teams — track, swimming, etc. — if universities have to provide salaries and benefits to all of their football players. Indeed, the very casting of this outstanding actor adds another layer of complexity to the film’s moral debate: Poe, like LeMarcus, is Black. Unlike LeMarcus, however, she has a different view of ways athletic scholarships can advance upward mobility.
But even Aduba is overshadowed by the film’s most valuable player, J.K. Simmons — and not just because he blowtorches his way through a show-stopping emotional speech to players Coach Lazor wants to retain and inspire. Simmons is every bit as potent in more low-key scenes, like the one in which his character is quietly devastated by his wife’s departure.
Set primarily within the confines of New Orleans’ humongous Hyatt Hotel — thereby allowing the Caesars Superdome, site of the championship game, to loom outside windows as equal parts goal and threat — “National Champions” is nothing if not topical.
There are several pointed references to the COVID pandemic, and an acknowledgement that courts have only recently allowed star college athletes to profit from commercial use of their likenesses. Sports fans will smile knowingly as the movie recalls real-life faux pas by racially insensitive college coaches (and NFL team owners). There are the requisite number of cameos by recognizable athletes and sports journalists playing themselves. And the dialogue is peppered with mentions of hashtags, viral videos and news leaks aimed to be launched by aggregators.
But be forewarned: There are so many visual and verbal plugs for Snickers throughout the entire movie, you may find yourself compelled to pick up a dozen or so of the candy bars on way home from the theater.