Friday Night Lights
Director : Peter Berg
Screenplay : David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg (based on the book Friday Night Lights A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Billy Bob Thornton (Coach Gary Gaines), Lucas Black (Mike Winchell), Garrett Hedlund (Don Billingsley), Derek Luke (Boobie Miles), Jay Hernandez (Brian Chavez), Lee Jackson (Ivory Christian), Lee Thompson Young (Chris Comer), Tim McGraw (Charles Billingsley), Grover Coulson (L.V. Miles), Connie Britton (Sharon Gaines), Connie Cooper (Mrs. Winchell), Kasey Stevens (Flippy), Ryanne Duzich (Melissa)
In Hoosiers (1987), that great, feel-good ode to small-town athletic glory, a tiny Indiana town’s obsession with the success of its high school basketball team played on the all-American romanticized grandeur of the underdog prevailing against all odds. Granted, the film was shot through with bitterly poignant moments about the coach’s sometimes sadistic intensity and the deflating truth that teenage sports glory can be deadening when it becomes the pinnacle of one’s life, but overall the film aimed for heartland mythmaking of epic sweep.
Friday Night Lights, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.R. Bissinger’s 1989 book of the same title, has many things in common with Hoosiers, except the focus is on Texas high school football in the late 1980s instead of Indiana high school basketball in the 1950s and the tone is much darker and more studied. Those bitter moments that leavened Hoosiers’ otherwise uncomplicated romanticism are the core of Friday Night Lights, and it might have been a truly great deconstruction of the secular religion of football worship had it not at the very end come dangerously close to buying into the very myth it is trying to dismantle.
Bissinger spent the year of 1988 living in the small West Texas town of Odessa observing the town and its relationship with the Permian High School Panthers football team. The resulting book, as its subtitle “A Town, a Team, and a Dream” suggests, is about more than just a football team; rather, it is about how the team and the town are essentially one in the same. Success on the field literally dictates civic pride, with an entire community putting its collective identity onto the shoulders of a group of teenagers.
Director Peter Berg (The Rundown) takes a rough, handheld approach to the adapting the material to the screen, clearly in an effort to distinguish his film from all the slick, fantasy-inducing Hollywood fables about athletic glory. The film’s opening moments are beautiful in the clean, concise manner in which they set the stage, alternating shaky footage of the dying town from a passing car window with elegant airborne shots that place it in the midst of an expansive desert. When we first see the high school football stadium from a high-angle shot, it is jarring because the intense green of the field stands in such stark contrast to the dry brown-gray nothingness that surrounds it, as if the town has rationed every drop of water for the field.
We meet the characters slowly and naturally, as Berg lets each come into focus in a succession of early scenes interspersed with interviews that establish the characters in terms of both their personalities and their relationship to the pigskin cult. Berg and his coscreenwriter David Aaron Cohen (The Devil’s Own) focus primarily on three of the football players: Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), the soft-spoken, overly serious quarterback who fears he will never be able to leave town because of his mentally ill mother; Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), who lives in the all-consuming shadow of his abusive, alcoholic father (Tim McGraw), a case study in high school football glory gone bad; and Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a highly talented running back who thinks that football is his ticket to stardom until an unexpected injury forces him to confront the emptiness of his prospects off the field.
Watching over the team is Coach Gary Gaines, embodied by Billy Bob Thornton as an ambiguous character who always seems to be standing just slightly outside the world he’s supposed to be commanding. His is strangely passive in potentially volatile situations, such as the scene when Don’s father storms onto the field during practice to physically and verbally humiliate his son for fumbling, or the disconcerting dinner scene at a wealthy Odessa family’s house where a well-dressed socialite casually lets slip her racist feelings about how African American players should be deployed on the field. In another scene, when Boobie and his well-meaning uncle lie to Coach Gaines about Boobie’s torn ligament, we clearly see in the coach’s eyes that he knows the truth, but even deeper in his look is his understanding that he can’t say “no.” As much as he is the leader, he is also a slave to the town, which is underscored by the incessant chatter of local talk radio in which angry locals bemoan that there’s too much “learning” going on in the school and not enough football practice.
Gaines is clearly a talented coach, and the repeated shots of him pouring over videotaped game footage shows that he is dedicated and sincere in leading a winning team. Yet, he is never truly a part of the community that leans so heavily on his success or failure. When the Panthers lose a crucial football game, he is welcomed home by half-a-dozen real estate signs in his front yard, and the local businessmen taint their supportive statements about winning with the barely disguised threat that losing carries a heavy price.
Friday Night Lights captures the ups and downs of the season with a biting precision, and the film slumps only when Berg gets lazy and allows clichéd montages set to rock music to stand in for narrative advancement. Not surprisingly, it all leads up to a “big game,” the state championship in the Astrodome in Houston, and at this point the film threatens to become as artificial as the Astroturf covering the field.
Yet, the outcome is not exactly what you would expect, which suggests that part of Berg’s ploy was to suck the audience into the excitement and put them in the shoes of the townspeople whose very identity rides on whether or not a 17-year-old can make it one more yard. From a purely emotional standpoint, it’s a thrilling evocation of the glories of athletic competition, but in the grand scheme of things it comes to represent just how sad it is when a community has nothing to bind it together except its incessant need to live through the fleeting victories of its youth.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Universal Pictures