Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

Review: ‘Greenland,’ starring Gerard Butler

December 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd and Gerard Butler in “Greenland” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Greenland”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of North America, the sci-fi action flick “Greenland” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A structural engineer, his wife and their 7-year-old son are selected by the U.S. government to be part of an elite evacuation program during a comet disaster, and this privileged status causes problems for them when they are separated during the chaos.

Culture Audience: “Greenland” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful apocalyptic movies that have underlying commentary about society’s conflicts over social classes and privilege.

Gerard Butler in “Greenland” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Out of all the types of apocalyptic disaster stories that can be told, perhaps the most terrifying is some variation of “the sky is falling,” whether it’s from meteors, comets or another deadly force from outer space. In the above-average sci-fi thriller “Greenland” (directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Chris Sparling), the threat from outer space is a highly unusual comet that scientists at first think is a natural wonder to behold. But the comet turns out to be the worst kind, because it ends up causing worldwide damage and has the power to wipe out most of Earth’s population. 

It’s a concept that’s been done in movies before, but “Greenland” ramps up the suspense level in realistic ways because it’s not too caught up in trying to scare people with visual effects, which are actually done very well in this film. Instead, “Greenland” focuses on the terror experienced by a family of three who get separated from each other in the chaos of an evacuation. There are added layers of stress because the child in this family is diabetic, and the family is targeted by desperate and envious people who want what this family has: privileged U.S. government clearance to be taken to a secret shelter that was built to withstand the worst disasters and attacks.

Like a lot of disaster movies, “Greenland” starts out with people being blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that’s coming their way. In Florida, structural engineer John Garrity (played by Gerard Butler), who is originally from Scotland, is on the job at a construction site, but he wants to get home as soon as possible because his 7-year-old son Nathan (played by Roger Dale Floyd) is having a party where several people in the neighborhood have been invited. John and his American wife Allison (played by Morena Baccarin), who were separated in the past and are now trying to work on their marriage, are organizing the party.

The big news around the world is that there’s an interstellar comet that is passing by Earth, and it’s expected to be the closest fly-by of a comet in Earth’s history. This highly anticipated sighting is such a big deal that people are having watch parties, and the news has been reporting the latest updates on the comet’s trajectory. The comet is considered so safe that it’s been named Clarke.

However, as soon as John gets home, something strange happens: He gets phone messages by text and by robocalls from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. These messages order John, Allison and Nathan to report to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia, because they have been selected for emergency relocation. The messages demand that no one else can accompany this family of three to the Air Force base.

John doesn’t know if these messages are real or some kind of prank. He tells people at the party about the messages, and they’re not sure if the messages are real either. A few of the adults at the party wonder why they didn’t get these messages too. John doesn’t know why he and his family were selected for this special evacuation.

However, it soon becomes obvious that the messages really are from the U.S. government. While the Garrity family and their party guests are in the living room watching the latest comet news on TV, the first sign that the comet is going to be disastrous comes when it’s reported that a fragment of the comet that was supposed to crash in the ocean near Brazil instead landed in Tampa. The shockwaves caused Tampa to burn, and the inferno blast spread all the way to Orlando.

John and Allison decide to quickly pack up some family belongings and go with Nathan by car to Robins Air Force Base, as instructed. There are some moments of high anxiety when a few of the neighbors beg to go with the Garrity family, but John refuses because he correctly assumes that anyone who doesn’t have government clearance will be turned away. However, he promises that he will contact the neighbors after he finds out more details about what’s going on with the evacuation.

Meanwhile, the Garrity family hears on the car radio that more of the comet’s fragments are wiping out entire parts of the world, including Bogotá, Colombia. Scientists are frantically trying to predict where the fragments might land next, in order to evacuate people from those areas. Anxiety then turns to sheer panic.

Word has gotten out that Robins Air Force Base is one of the designated meeting areas for the evacuees who were selected by the U.S. government. And so, when the Garritys arrive at the Air Force base, they see a terrified and angry mob of people who demand to be let in, even though most of them are not supposed to be there. It’s a foreshadowing of the “haves” and “have nots” conflicts that happen during several scenes in the movie.

Several military personnel are on duty to only allow access to people who are on the government clearance list. And those pre-approved people get yellow wristbands to identify them. There are several Air Force planes waiting to take thousands of people to the same shelter, which is in a classified location that is later revealed to be in Greenland.

The Garrity family makes it safely through the checkpoint, but things take a turn for the worse when they find out that Nathan, who is diabetic, accidentally dropped his insulin in the car when he was looking for a blanket. John finds out that he has only about 15 to 20 minutes before the family’s assigned evacuee plane leaves. He also finds out that all the planes are headed to the same place, so that if he can’t be on the same plane as his wife and son, he’ll hopefully be able to reunite with them at the shelter.

John and Allison hastily make a decision that John will go back to the car to get Nathan’s medicine, while Allison will stay with Nathan and board the plane. However, more complications ensue when Allison speaks to a military guard and tells him about their situation and how they can’t leave without John. And that’s when the guard tells her that because Nathan is diabetic, it’s a health liability, and the Garrity family shouldn’t have been approved for the emergency shelter.

The guard and a colleague then tell Allison and Nathan that they can’t get on the plane after all. Allison and Nathan are then forced to go with the guards to another area, where Allison pleads with another military person to let them on the plane because they don’t want to be separated from John. What happens next are several twists and turns to the story, some of which are unpredictable, while other plot developments are a tad cliché.

All of the cast members give very good performances, even though this movie is not on the type of prestige level where it’s going to get any major awards. The filmmakers avoided the stereotype that a lot of American-made disaster movies have: making the male protagonist/hero someone who was born and raised in the United States. Butler, who is Scottish in real life, keep his native accent in the movie. (Butler is one of the producers of “Greenland,” so that probably had a lot to do with the decision to make John Garrity a Scot too.)

Another non-cliché aspect to “Greenland” is that it doesn’t follow the disaster movie formula of having the hero’s love interest be a passive “damsel in distress.” Allison is no ditz who waits around to be rescued. There are moments where Allison steps up in a big way to help save her family. Baccarin’s portrayal shows a lot of authenticity in how real women would act in the same situation, with all the bravery and vulnerability that comes with it.

John and Allison’s son Nathan is thankfully not written as “too precocious to be true” or a “disease of the week” kid. Floyd capably portrays Nathan’s intelligent sensitivity as a kid who just happens to have diabetes. The movie also makes a point of showing how Nathan’s medical condition quickly changed the status of the Garrity family from “desirable” to “undesirable” candidates for evacuation. It speaks to the prejudice that people could encounter in a similar situation where governments decide who in the population will get preferential treatment in a mass evacuation. 

One of the other memorable characters in “Greenland” is Allison’s widower father Dale (played by Scott Glenn), who somewhat mistrusts John because of the problems in John and Allison’s marriage. And there’s a married couple in the story named Judy Vento (played by Hope Davis) and Ralph Vento (played by David Denman), who play a key role in one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the movie.

Throughout the film, director Waugh never lets up on the frantic pace after the comet disaster strikes. (Waugh and Butler previously worked together on the 2019 action film “Angel Has Fallen.”) And when it comes to characters, “Greenland” wisely takes a “less is more” approach, since the story is focused on this family of three and their perspective for the entire film. It’s a departure from the typical disaster movie that has different storylines for a group of strangers. Simply put: “Greenland” is an apocalyptic movie that isn’t going to change the world, but it largely succeeds in being suspenseful, escapist entertainment.

STX released “Greenland” on VOD on December 18, 2020. The movie will be released on digital on January 26, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on February 9, 2021.

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