Friday Night Lights
know towns like Odessa, Texas. Latter day dust bowl hamlets full of
strip malls, empty fields, greasy spoons, trailer parks, stripped cars and
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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Posted: January 14, 2005.