FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Directed by Peter Berg
Screenplay by Peter Berg and David Aaron Cohen
Based on the book: “Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Dream And A Team” by H.G. Bissinger
I’m not a football guy at all. My sports are baseball, boxing and tennis. I can understand the complexities of Star Trek technobabble or Pre-Crisis DC Comics continuity with no problem but trying to understand the rules of football makes me feel like the village idiot. Oh, if you invite me over to your house to watch a game with you, I’ll show up gladly with the beer and the buffalo wings but the only thing I understand about football is that one guy gets the ball and runs like his ass is on fire while a bunch of other guys try to stop him. So why did I watch FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS which is a football movie? As so often happens I had nothing else to watch on my TiVO. I’d seen every other movie I had saved on it and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was the only thing I hadn’t watched. Twenty minutes into the movie I was hooked for a lot a reasons that had nothing to do with football.
The movie (based on true incidents) takes place in the Texas town of Odessa where the 1988 high school football season is just beginning for The Permian Panthers and we’re introduced to some the players: Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is the star of the team. He knows it and isn’t shy about letting everybody else know it. Cut like a mahogany god with a 1000-watt smile and an ego big as an earthquake, he can back up his smack talk with his extraordinary athletic abilities. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is a young man who has far more responsibility than he should be due to the pressures of winning football games placed on him by the town and his own mother who’s not quite right in the head. Running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is under the cruel domination of his alcoholic father (Tim McGraw) who was himself was once a star football player and in a lot of ways never really left high school at all. Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) is black, like Boobie and is constantly being harassed by his girlfriend because he’s not a star like Boobie. She keeps nagging at him to make a touchdown for her and he looks as if he’d really like to pop her a good one in the eye. Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson) never says much at all and seems to be observing life with a world weariness that seems more appropriate to a man in his 70’s than a 17 year old kid. Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) is a sweet Mexican kid who perhaps doesn’t have the heart to play the game. Especially not in a town like this one.
The team’s coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is under a hellish amount of pressure to win the state championship. He can’t go to the supermarket with his wife and daughter without twenty people asking him; “We going to state? We going to state?” or “Let’s get this done” or “Do what you gotta do, coach” There’s an unspoken threat even behind the most jovial and supportive of declarations that if the team doesn’t bring home the championship, Coach Gaines might just as well start looking for a new job. His wife (Connie Britton) has one of the best lines in the movie when she says: “I’ve been thinking we should move to Alaska. They don’t care about football so much there.”
And the whole disturbing dependence of the town on the game and the team is what really got me hooked on the movie. I’m sure there are many citizens of Odessa who lead productively happy lives without giving a rolling doughnut about football but we don’t see any of them here. All of the adults we see in the movie appear to spend their entire waking moment obsessed beyond all reason with a high school football team. Whenever there’s a game, the entire town closes down to attend and the stadium looks about as big as Madison Square Garden. I dunno if it’s really like that in small towns but FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS convinced me that it is.
I liked how the movie was told in an almost documentary fashion and didn’t pull any punches as far as showing the good and bad of small town high school football. For a lot of these boys, football is the only way they’re going to get a college education and get out of their town. This is indeed more than just a game to them. For most of them, it’ll define the course of the rest of their lives. This is really brought home when Boobie injures his knee and is told he cannot play any longer. Boobie accuses the MRI technician of taking a bribe from a rival football team to keep Boobie out of a crucial game. Boobie and the uncle who raised him (Grover Coulson) conspire together to keep the true extent of his injury a secret since Boobie depended so much on a football career, his academic skills are dreadfully sub par.
But with Boobie out of the game, this means that the rest of the team have to really dig deep and find it in themselves to try and win the big game against Carter High School, a team so fierce and formidable that even their cheerleaders look intimidating. As one of The Permian Panthers says; “They’re too big, too fast, too strong and just downright too nasty.” And the game is a particularly brutal one. These kids get hit so hard you wonder what the hell their bones are made out of. But at least the football games are of realistic dimensions and not like the ones in “Any Given Sunday” where guys were getting teeth and eyes knocked outta their heads on every play.
If you’re a football fan you’ve probably seen FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS already and if you haven’t, then you need to rectify that error the next time you’re looking for a movie to rent for Friday or Saturday night. And even if you’re not a football fan, get FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS anyway. It does an excellent job of showing a part of American life that many of us never get to see and I always appreciate a movie that can do that. The performances are really terrific, especially Billy Bob Thornton as the coach and the actors playing the team members do so with conviction. The movie shows the desperate complexities of football being a status symbol in a small town and doesn’t weigh in on one side or the other but just presents the situation and examines how this particular team and their coach handle what to me seemed impossible expectations placed on them by a town obsessed with winning at all costs. An exceptionally good movie on all levels and well worth watching for football fans and non-fans alike. Enjoy.