A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG-13, 117 mins.

Coach Gaines: Billy Bob Thornton / Mike Winchell: Lucas Black / Don Billingsley: Garrett Hedlund / Boobie Miles: Derek Luke / Brian Chavez: Jay Hernandez / Ivory Christian: Lee Jackson / Chris Comer: Lee Thompson Young / Charles Billingsley: Tim McGraw / L.V. Miles: Grover Coulson

Directed by Peter Berg / Written by Berg and David Aaron Cohen /  Based on the book by H.G. Bissinger

It’s very abundantly clear that after watching Peter Berg’s FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS that there are actually three certainties in life for the citizens of a small West Texas town that preoccupies the film - death, taxes, and most assuredly football. 

To be sure, the allure of the game of football is placed very squarely at center field (no pun intended) in this new film, which is an adaptation of the best selling book FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: A TOWN, A TEAM, A DREAM by H.G Bissinger, which itself follows a season in the life of a high school football team, the Permian Panthers 1988 season to be exact, in the tiny town of Odessa, Texas.  Although I have not read the book to which the film (one of the best sports films of recent memory) adapts,  I can confidently say that the film chiefly supports and relishes on the often troubling assertion that sports can indeed consume a small town to the point where it sort becomes a sick religion.  Sundays may be for Church for the citizens of Odessa, but on Friday nights, they worship at the alter of a 100 yard playing field. 

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS does have all of the standard material that makes up most contemporary pictures about sports - it has the star player, the weak player lacking in confidence and filled with self doubt, the caring, yet personally motivated coach that would give a kidney for a championship season, the parental figure that is abusive and inflicts pain, both mental and physical, on his player/son, the player that gets injured and faces a life without his beloved sport, and, of course, what sports film would be complete without the obligatorical final “big game” where all of the odds are at stake.   

Yes, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS has all of these elements in huge abundance.  Yet, the film works beyond these simple levels and adds a whole new contextual layer around it.  It’s not a startling expose on what physically playing football is like, nor does it feel the need to bog itself down in action set pieces or the “big game” itself.  This film, like another great sports entry from 2004 – MIRACLE – is about psychology.  FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS not only focuses on the players and coaches and what makes them tick, but it also wisely examines the social and small town political climate that fosters the sport of football into something that does not resemble a fun sporting event, but more or less a life-and-death struggle to which the town’s identity and place in the world are at risk.  At one point the Odessa coach, played in another disquieting performance of power and reserve by Billy Bob Thornton, tells his young team that they have a responsibility to protect their team, their sport, and most importantly, their town. 

At this juncture, something really dawned on me -  football today for these small town zealots, who place it on an unheard of pedestal of worship, may just be less of an enjoyable high school extracurricular activity and more of a curse.  This just may be the first high school sports film that does not glorify its sport into something enjoyable and grand.  No, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a gritty and ugly look at a game where innocence is basically shoved out of the way because, dammit, the town will not survive unless the team goes to the state championship.  For a young seventeen-year-old player, am I the only one that is thinking, “Isn’t this a bit too much pressure to place on a person this young?” 

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS details, very effectively,  the 1988 season of the Odessa Permian Panthers, but it also does an expert job of exposing the darker side of high school sports – the adults of the small community that live all-too-dangerously and vicariously through the sport of football.  The film is strongly about adults who, as crazy as it may seem to some some, define their entire existence by the sport they love.  The film is like one long radio sports talk show that has one of those blubbering and raging super fans that chastise and lament on every aspect on the performance of their favourite team to the point where a major psychological examination should be recommended.  Odessa is a small town like many we recognize.  It has simple-minded and good-hearted citizens (for the most part) that lead good daily lives that are productive and rewarding. 

Yet, the most fascinating (and shocking aspect) of the small town is just how seriously they take the sport of football.  The playback of a local radio talk show that has citizens chime in with their comments about the their team is a constant regurgitated element of the film, and the amount of completely downbeat criticism and vilification their speak of would be enough to wear down and demean any person.  The level of pressure that these people place on the coaches and children (let’s face it, these are kids after all) is absolutely mind-blowing and frustrating, as one obsessed and ignorant caller yells out, “They’re doing too much schooling and not enough sporting!” 

The film has an abundance of good, solid characters;  the most evocative and compelling would be that of the Odessa coach Gary Gaines (Thornton).  Thornton occupies the role as effortlessly as he has ever had, and forges a persona that is both deeply committed to his passion for football, but almost kind of inwardly turned off by what he sees around him.  He does not voice his concerns or issues outright, as he is a man of inward convictions, and does not feel the need to speak out when his eyes do all of the talking for him.   Clearly, here is the portrait of a man that loves his sport and would be willing to do anything to compel and inspire his young team, but he is also troubled by what he hears and sees around him.  There is one disturbing and powerful scene at the beginning of the film where Gains sees one of his receivers Don (Garrett Hedlund) having trouble actually hanging onto the ball in a pre-season practice.  His abusive father, played with real power by Tim McGraw (yes, that one) goes right on to the field and nearly beats his child up.  You can see in Gaines’ eyes that something is just not pure and exciting about his sport anymore. 

There is also another revealing moment that comes very close to encapsulating the film’s tone and mood.  A scene where Gaines sits down with his star receiver Bobbie Miles (Derek Luke) to discuss his ability to continue playing is also a strongly realized moment.  Miles injured his knee, so much that a MRI and a specialist has told him that there is “no way” he can continue to play football.  Miles is like all talented players - he’s so sure of his natural ability that it clouds his already large ego to the point where common sense is largely vacant.   His sense is so far removed that he chews out the specialist and is so convinced of his “God-given” talent that he and his uncle (Grover Coulson) go back and tell Gaines that he’s fit to play.  It’s not so shocking that Miles tells Gaines this, but it’s enormously disconcerting to see his guardian, his own uncle, support Miles.  The culture of football has such a dangerous stranglehold on this town that even adults are willing to sacrifice their child’s well being for a chance at winning.  For Odessa, it’s not about the how you play the game or for the fun of it, it’s all about winning, even if it means disabling a loved one.

Since the sport has been stripped away from anything resembling purity, the players and Gaines himself live a life that is all about breathing, eating, and sleeping with a constant barrage of criticisms, suggestions, hell, even threats.  Of course, Gaines loves football because it’s “just a game”, but deep down inside him and his players, it’s not…it’s something much more dark and serious.  Thornton has a soft-spoken manner of playing this man of duplicity.  Gaines has to appear strong, confident, and intelligent to his town, who would be willing to verbally praise him as a hero and then simultaneously lynch him as a failure, but he also must demonstrate and sensitive and reflective edge, especially when dealing with his players.  When Gaines goes over to his quarterback’s house (played very effectively by Lucas Black), it's not one of those clichéd-filled sport movie scenes where the coach screams at his player to step it up a notch. Their moment together is quiet and soft-spoken, and Thornton is so graceful, tactful, and calm with his young star.  He realizes that the town is overwhelming these kids and beating them down.  The only way to motivate is with low-key charm. not a verbal tirade of hurtful insults.

The film also works beyond its character moments as a textbook exercise in filmmaking craft as well.  Peter Berg and his cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler decided to shoot the film in quick, sporadic, hand-held shots made up of grainy and gritty photography that gives the film an overwhelming sense of realism, sort of a loose documentary style in a way.  The camera moves are fast, hectic, and often difficult to follow at first, but this technique, with a precise use of desaturated colours,  upholds the inherent ugliness of the sport.  This is not REMEMBER THE TITANS, but rather a film about football from the trenches outward.  FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS may not appeal to the lay viewer because, well, it’s simply not a good-looking film that panders and postures around bold and colourful visuals.  Even in the concluding football scenes Berg cuts the film fast and frantically.  High school sports here looks more like combat warfare…its kind of disheartening, almost tragic.  In a way, one’s youth is somewhat lost in the violent and tumultuous world of first downs and bone-crunching tackles.  During one sad moment in the film when the quarterback tells his teammate, “I can’t remember the last time I felt seventeen,”  you really understand how he feels.

I think this is why FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS emerges as one of the best football films ever made.  Yes, it does play up to the conventions of the sports melodrama, but this real-life story has much more going for it than these superficial elements.  In many sports films the central element is the big final game that shows the ultimate victory of the team we’ve been routing for two hours.  In FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS the focus is not the game at all really, but more about the emotional, psychological, and sociological climate that leads to the game.  The film has many great action moments, but it’s more concerned with what’s going on in the character’s minds.  It’s also about the tragedy of having your possible dreams being shattered in merely an instant.  Miles, after his knee injury, starts to realize that the severity of his condition dictates the possibility of never playing again.  He then looks out of his car and momentarily stares at the nearby garbage men.  Berg holds the shot, long enough for us to get the point.  Miles does not want a life of manual labor if he can’t have football.  The tragedy of the film is that, unfortunately, he lives in a volatile climate where no one ever pulls him aside and tells him that a life without football may just be okay.

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