FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004)
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Lee Jackson, Lee Thompson Young, Grover Coulson, Connie Britton, Connie Cooper, Kasey Stevens, Ryanne Duzich, Amber Heard, Morgan Farris, Laine Kelly, Gavin Grazer, Turk Pipkin, Dr. Carey Windler, Tommy G. Kendrick, Brad Leland and Lillian Langford.
Screenplay by David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg.
Directed by Peter Berg.
Distributed by Universal Pictures. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.
You know towns like Odessa, Texas. Latter day dust bowl hamlets full of strip malls, empty fields, greasy spoons, trailer parks, stripped cars and limited options.
There are only two things that matter in Odessa, God and football, and not necessarily in that order. The high school has a stadium bigger than many colleges. The entire psyche, the well-being of the town is enmeshed in the H.S. standings. Anything less than the state championship is an abject failure.
This film is based on the book by the same name by former-Philadelphia Inquirer reporter H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger about the 1988 season of Odessa’s Permian High School Panthers. Widely considered one of the best sports books ever, it takes an unflinching view of how these high school athletes hold the responsibility for an entire community’s well-being. For a three-month period, how they are both local rock stars when they win, and pariahs when they lose. And when it’s over, it’s all over.
Into this football melting pot is hired Coach Gary Gaines. Making an outrageous (at least for Odessa) $60,000 a year in the most glamorous and scrutinized job in the town, Gaines is a natural focal point of public attention. Billy Bob Thornton does a wonderfully subtle job of bringing Gaines to life. He is not one of those fire and brimstone coaches that we are used to seeing. Gaines is a quiet, thoughtful man who keeps everything close to the vest. He recognizes that football is just a game, it isn’t life and death. Gaines sees the pressure that he and the team are put in by the town to win at all costs. At the same time, it is his job, and he does his all to be the best he can.
Smiling townsfolk dispense compliments and pieces of advice that somehow come off as threats. Everyone has their ideas of what is wrong and right with the team, and they all share them at houses, parties and on local talk radio. One caller complains that too much time is spent studying at that school and not enough time practicing, and you know that he is not alone in that perception.
And yet, even Gaines can get caught up in it all. In one scene where a star player tells him that a doctor has okayed him to play with an injury, Thornton is able to perfectly convey the fact that he knows that he is probably being lied to, and yet he wants desperately to believe.
That star is a charismatic runner named Boobie Miles (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher). Boobie is a natural talent who has been catered to his entire life because of his abilities. He has been passed through school so that he is a local star, but he can barely read. It is only when he suffers a season-ending injury that he realizes that he has been living a lie. Without football in his life, he suddenly recognizes he has nothing to offer. A near-silent scene where he sits on his porch in a cast watching the local garbage men do their work and realizes this may be where his future lies is as powerful an image as any in the film.
The quarterback is Mike Winchell, an insecure boy who cares for his sickly mother and always feels like he will let people down. In a nice casting touch, this quietly solemn quarterback is played by Lucas Black, who has grown up quite a bit since playing the somber little boy who befriended Thornton eight long years ago in Sling Blade.
Another one of the players is Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), the second string running back. His father Charles (well played by country singer Tim McGraw in a fearlessly scruffy and obnoxious role) is always on him, always pushing, even walking onto the field during practice to show his boy up in front of his team. Charles is mean, ornery, violent and almost inevitably drunk. Then, when you are ready to write him off as a completely irredeemable bastard, there is an amazing scene where a hung-over Charles tries to explain to his son that this year is the best that his life will ever get. He says that by eighteen the attention and the adulation will be over and that it will all be one giant downhill slide into oblivion. In his own way, Charles is trying to warn his son, but he is also talking about himself. While his son only partially gets what his old man is saying, the audience has a new, clearer understanding of the guy and what he has gone through in his life. It doesn’t excuse the way he is, but at least it casts a light on the cause.
The football scenes are extremely well choreographed, especially the brutal final game where Permian is matched up against Dallas Carter, a bigger, faster and dirtier team. However, the movie realizes as Coach Gaines does, that football is just part of the big picture. “It took me a long time to realize that there ain’t much difference between winning and losing,” coach tells Mike, “except for how the outside world treats you.”
What makes this film remarkable is that understanding of humankind, of the seething politics and passion of the situation. It shows the amount of pressure placed on a bunch of boys who are, after all, just playing a game. “I don’t feel seventeen,” Mike says at one point, and you can feel his pain.
There have been quite a few of these high school football-themed movies over the years — some of the more recent ones include Remember the Titans, The Program and Varsity Blues. Many of them were good enough films. However none of them really captured the world they occupied. They only skirted on the temptations and the devastation of this brief window of fame. They romanticized the misplaced zeal of a town desperate for something to root for, to be a part of. Friday Night Lights has this world down cold. Not only is it the best film of its type, it is one of the better films made this year, period. (10/04)
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 14, 2005.