“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.