Dir. Peter Berg and Josh Pate. USA. 2004

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“Their sons grow suicidally beautiful, At the beginning of October, And gallop terribly against each other's bodies”
from the poem “Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright.

Directed by Peter Berg and co-written by David Aaron Cohen, Friday Night Lights is not only a sports movie about a high school football team but also a film about values and what is important in life. Set in 1988 in Odessa, Texas, a West Texas oil town of 90,000 people where everyone lives for Friday nights during football season so they can go out and cheer their team, the Permian High Panthers (also known as “Mojo), the football team with the most wins in Texas history. 

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream” by H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger, people in Odessa eat, sleep, and breathe football. They talk about it incessantly on talk-radio shows, at the local drive-ins and bars, reflecting on the team's past glory and the championships yet to come. They “dream of heroes because their own dreams have disappeared, and…their sons must bear the pressure of these dreams.” Their obsession with winning is so strong that “for sale” signs are put on the coach's front lawn after a loss, and racial prejudice remains a potent factor. 

The film captures the explosive force of the game and also explores the character of the boys, mostly 17-year-olds, who are under constant pressure from their families, coaches, and teammates to realize the hopes and dreams of the community, but who must deal with harsh realities. Led by intense head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), the team has high expectations but, when star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) tears an Achilles tendon in his knee, the mood of the team sinks. The young quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) now feels the pressure to produce even more, although he is lacking in self confidence and has to deal with a chronically ill mother. 

There are also fireworks between tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), a player prone to fumbles and his bitter, alcoholic father Charles (Tim McGraw), a former star for the Panthers, now living with only his fast-fading memories and his championship ring. Charles is not above humiliating his son in public, while telling him that football is everything. “After football,” he says, “it's just babies and memories." Upcoming star Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) gives the team some hope but he is only a third-string running back with much to learn. Boobie wants to get back in, but his ego and immaturity get in the way. Insisting on playing in spite of the doctor's orders, he inevitably reinjures his knee and is out for the season. 

Although some of the actors playing the 16 and 17-year-old football players look more like NFL linebackers in their late twenties, they act young and vulnerable and we root for them to come out on top. Like soldiers going off to war for a reason they do not understand, they play football as if their life depends on it. One boy says, “I don't feel like 17,” and you can see the sadness on his face. A very touching moment occurs after quarterback Winchell throws an errant pass in the end zone to a wide open receiver and cries openly in the locker room, repeatedly saying “I'm sorry.” 

Another extremely moving scene is when Boobie breaks down and cries as he tells his uncle L.V. (Grover Coulson) that he cannot do anything else in life besides play football. Though the Panthers struggle, they end up in a three-way tie for the right to play in the State Championship game against the rough and physical Dallas Carter team with a coin toss determining who plays and who goes home. That is where the fireworks really begin. Though some facts are embellished for dramatic effect, Friday Night Lights is an emotionally honest and compelling film, with characters that grow in depth and maturity, a rare achievement for a sports film. 

Billy Bob Thornton turns in one of his best performances as Coach Gaines who initially falls into line with the heavy-handed machismo approach, yelling at his team that they “have to be perfect” and repeating the win-at-all-cost mantra of the community. By the time the final game rolls around, however, he tells his huddled players that being perfect does not mean winning each game or never making mistakes. It means that you can look your friends in the eye and tell them that you have given all that you could have given. As the team listens in hushed silence, he tells them to go back on the field with "clear eyes, love in your heart, joy in your heart,” an important reminder of the values in life that are the most nurturing and reflective of my feelings after the film had ended. 


Howard Schumann

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