Title: Friday Night Lights
Genre: Action, Drama, Sport
Screenwriters: David Aaron Cohen
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke
Now here’s a stunner — Friday Night Lights has been marketed as fairly generic sports movie nonsense, perhaps in the vein of Remember the Titans, when, in fact, it has about as much to do with Remember the Titans as it does with Legends of the Fall. This is a real film, and not of the garden variety; profoundly upsetting and pointed in its criticism, it’s concerned not just with football, but with the people who play it and the people it affects. One probably needs to understand the sport to fully appreciate Peter Berg’s remarkable work, but that’s the only sports movie convention you’ll find here.
The easiest criticism to level at Friday Night Lights is that it overstates its point, and yes, some may find the numerous montages of various Odessa, Texas establishments putting up a sign saying “Gone to the Game” a bit much. But if Berg engages in overkill, surely it’s nowhere near that practiced by the residents of Odessa, who, if the film and Buzz Bissinger’s non-fiction book are to be believed, crossed all boundaries of healthy fandom and burdened a bunch of seventeen year-old kids with the kind of pressure grown adults should be lucky to avoid. I haven’t read the book, but I must say I believe the film.
In the midst of the flash, subtleties abound. Watch the way that the injured star player’s uncle, trying to reassure the coach that his nephew will be back in action before too long, uses “we” instead of “he,” or the quiet power of the scene in which the formerly invincible runningback cleans out his locker, tossing out a Mercedes-Benz brochure in the process. How interesting that the character who, in a different film, might just have been a stereotypical abusive father, turns out to have motivations that are complex and ambiguous. And I am still trying to figure out how the movie managed to convincingly establish a relationship between Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and his wife and daughter without showing the latter two on screen for more than seconds at a time.
Berg, whose track record of Very Bad Things and The Rundown doesn’t inspire confidence, directs like he spent a year shadowing Oliver Stone, and is also a really big fan of Tony Scott. His style is kinetic, with constant zooms, dissynchronous cuts and extreme close-ups, but the mood he creates is one of melancholy and hopelessness, a hellish void that the characters cannot escape though they may try. The low point is probably a late-film tournament montage, complete with shifting bracket graphics, that expedites the storytelling but breaks the spell, though even that takes on new meaning once we learn where the film is going.
Those who go in expecting The Replacements may not even notice, but the football action Berg films is top notch, with the audience feeling every bone-crushing tackle. It helps that we know, like, and care about the characters enough to actually flinch when one of them takes a hit; I’m not sure I’ve ever reacted quite this viscerally during a sports movie. List of visceral reactions, for the sake of full disclosure: leaping back in my seat, grabbing my head with my hands, flinching, shutting my eyes, and perhaps even crying out in shock and dismay.
But though the denoument seems a bit confused about this, football is little more than a red herring here. Friday Night Lights appreciates the mechanics of the game, but its focus is on these kids and the vicious injustice of their circumstances, the cycle of poverty and cruelty they find themselves in, being told that this is all there is and that they better make themselves some memories while they can, because it’s all downhill from here. Anyone who has ever seemingly hinged his existence on a single hope only to have it snatched away will find this heartbreaking; doubly so, since the loss of hope here very well might be real and not imagined.
Billy Bob Thornton is great in a great role; his Coach Gary Gaines is sympathetic and levelheaded, a bastion of sanity in a world that’s spiraling into oblivion. His obligatory halftime locker room speech becomes a last-ditch attempt to refocus these kids’ perspectives before their lives have a chance to come crashing down with the team’s defeat. The tender yet entirely unsentimental relationships between Gaines and his players, particularly quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and James “Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke), the injured runningback, resemble actual interactions between a high school student and a mentor.
It’s hard to imagine oneself in a position of having two options for the rest of your life: an incredibly long shot of achieving greatness or, failing that, mediocrity and misery. Yet this is exactly the false choice that the characters of Friday Night Lights find themselves facing, and the film gives them dignity, and their story power.