on 26 January 2006
I don't like American football. I don't understand how it works. And yet I was completely won over by this film.
High school sport is huge in America, particularly Texas. In the dustblown oil city of Odessa, on the flat, arid Texas plain, it's the only game in town. This film makes absolutely clear the kind of pressure that's put on high school kids - they are reliving their parents' dreams and aspirations. The bland country singer Tim McGraw makes a huge impression in this film - a superb portrayal of a drunken abusive ex-player, who says to his son something like "This is it - you have one year - everything's downhill from there on". And that sums up the film: a bunch of 17 year old kids must carry all the hopes and fears of an entire town - to a climactic battle in the Houston superdome that even if you don't know anything about American football will still leave you with your heart in your mouth.
The story's told in snatches of conversation, radio commentary, little telling scenes. It takes you a while to work out who the characters are, but don't worry - you'll get there. You are given just enough detail to work with and no more than you need. Lucas Black stands out as the strong, silent kid with too much responsibility, but all are good.
I just can't believe how good this rather unpromising film was. I'm still thinking about it two weeks later. The ending - well, read the captions carefully. There's a lovely, ironic twist to look out for.
It's based on a true story, apparently. It feels like it. It really is one of the best American films I've seen in ages... if you're at all interested in the fact that America really is a foreign country, watch this film.
I live in Minnesota, where high school hockey is the state religion and the right of passage for seniors is to go to the State Tournament, even if there school does not make it that far. Parents (not just fathers) send their sons to live in other school districts so they can get more playing time or play with a better team. Everyone who has seen "Hoosiers" know that in Indiana it is high school basketball that is the subject of such devotion, but if you needed to see "Friday Night Lights" to know that neither of those state religions holds a candle to high school football in Texas, then you are just not a true sports fan. Even before H.G. Bissinger's Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream," I knew the people of West Texas took their high school football seriously (I lived in New Mexico when I went to high school, so it would have been hard not to notice).
Director Peter Berg's film version of "Friday Night Lights" is based on the true story of the Odessa-Permian Panthers and their 1988 season. What "true" means in this case is that the name of the coach and the key players are accurate, as are the number of losses the Panthers had that year (although the scores are different, as is one of the opponents). Overall, the film avoids going Hollywood until the final game, which does manage to be true to the spirit of the film even if it requires a stupid play call to help things along (I am sorry, but if it is 4th down and half the length of a football to go, and your offensive line outweighs the defense by at least 50 pounds a person, you call a quarterback sneak and get a least a yard more than you need just by firing off the ball; at least, that is what my father has always told me and since he played college football for an undefeated team, Trinity in Connecticut, I tend to listen to him).
This film affirms, for the upteenth time, that the main thing wrong with sports involving kids are the adults, either in the form of the parents, or the concerned citizens whose support of coach is based primarily on the score of the last game. The prototypical parent in this story is Charles Billingsley (Tim McGraw), who has his state championship ring and makes it clear that his son, Don (Garrett Hedlund), will be a failure if he does not do the same. Unfortunately, Don has a tendency to fumble, so Charles has no problem going down onto the field during practice to set the boy straight. Is Don playing football for his dad or despite his dad? There is no easy answer to that question, because life, family, and football are all wrapped up together in Odessa, Texas. The town might be mired in an economic depression, but that does not stop them from having a football stadium bigger than what some colleges and universities enjoy.
Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is supposed to go undefeated and win the state championship. Perham has done this four times before, in 1965, 1976, 1980, and 1984. Apparently they have a four year crop rotation program going and everybody in town can do the math to figure out 1988 is going to be the year. When the Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) the star running back gets hurt the coach gets the blame even though it is clear, like in a classic Greek tragedy, that the Fates are punishing the sin of hubris. Boobie is all ready to spend his money for playing in the NFL and he has not even picked a college yet. Basking in his stardom, Boobie gladly admits to reporters that he gets straight A's because he is an athlete and as he leaves defenders in the wake of his sweet moves you can understand why he is the most important play for Permian. But the goddess of mischief hides the helmet of his backup Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young), and everybody knows that when you are running the score up and keep your superstar in the game, somebody is going to go gunning for him.
There are several key factors that make "Friday Night Lights" work. The first is Thornton's performance, which is yet another reminder that he is one of the finest film actors around today. His Coach Gaines goes between moments of screaming at his players in the grand tradition of football coaches going back to Knute Rockne and beyond and measured silences as he endures another rabid fan excoriating him on talk radio or the "For Sale" signs that have sprung up in his front yard after a loss. But there are also moments when the speaks from the heart, whether it is to his quarterback, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) in the squalid home the kid shares with his mentally disturbed mother (Connie Cooper), or the final halftime speech to his team. What distinguishes Gaines from every other man in the story is that he knows that in the end, football is just a game. He just has to be careful about who he shares this particular bit of wisdom with during the season.
Berg makes a brilliant decision to shoot this story as if it were a documentary. This works well in the extended game sequences, but suits the rest of the film as well, which is important because the most important moments in "Friday Night Lights" come at other times. Some of the best scenes take place away from the lighted field as Boobie and his uncle (Grover Coulson) deal with the disappearance of the dream during a visit to a doctor, when the garbage truck makes it rounds, and when the kid cleans out his locker. This leads to the third key factor, which is that we care about the kids that the story focuses on, including the silent "Preacher" (Lee Jackson) and the kid who is going to Harvard to become a lawyer, Brain Chavez (Jay Hernandez). We do not care about the fans or the families or the rest of the town, just the kids, and their performances match those of Thornton in providing a realism that we just do not get in most of the films in the sports genre.
I really liked this movie until the end, where the action and the emotions smack too much of Hollywood, not to mention David versus Goliath, than what had been established up to that point. Still, in the end Berg focuses exactly where he should, on the kids who have finished their high school football careers and the coach who has to immediately start planning for next year, when Odessa-Permian would again undertake the sacred quest for perfection.
The DVD extras are pretty good, including a documentary on the real 1988 Permian Panthers that shows us the actual players both then and now, although if you want to know about the real football games played that season you have to go check out the school's website. There is also a solid commentary track by Berg and Bissinger (who are cousins) that does a nice job of mixing history and art.
For an appreciation of this excellent film see the beautifully written review by D. Mikels. What I want to do here is present a counterpoint. I played high school football too and might have sat on the bench a little less except that I was a slow-footed T-quarterback at a school that ran the single wing. Yes, it was that long ago.
The football presented in this film by director Peter Berg is a little different. In fact it is a whole lot different. Here high school football is the most important thing in the world, not just for the players and coaches, but for the entire town. If you drive through a west Texas town or an Oklahoma or even an Indiana town on a Friday night in the fall, the town will be deserted (as in the movie) while the stadium at the high school will be lit up like a gigantic Christian revival meeting in which it might be fully expected that Christ will appear to perform the Second Coming.
It is no exaggeration to say that in the heartland of America the rites and rituals of football, joined into by almost the entire populous, take on all the trappings of a most zealous and evangelical religion. What Peter Berg has done here is capture that maniacal devotion and idolatry--that oh, so American way of life in a quasi-realistic way.
I say "quasi" because there is some license taken with reality by the film makers. First of all, and most importantly, the players are too old. Derek Luke, who plays star running back Boobie Miles (and does an outstanding job), was 29 when the movie was filmed. Jay Hernandez who played Chavez was 25. Anybody who really plays football or coaches it can tell you there is a world of difference between a young man of seventeen or eighteen and one of twenty-five or thirty.
And the scenes filmed especially for the movie with the flying tackles and the rolling flips and the bone-crunching open field tackles--forget it. Those are staged tackles, like kung fu fights in Chinese movies. Everything looks fantastic only it's about as realistic as a barroom fight in an old cowboy movie from the forties.
What is realistic? When sexy, saucy blonde Melissa goes looking for her trophy seduction of the MoJo quarterback--that's real. She knows that the highest status in town belongs to the star of the high school football team, and the highest status of any girl is to get that guy. Also realistic is the pressure put on coaches and administrators to win football games. Winning isn't a matter of life and death. As some coaches will tell you, it's more important than that. And they mean it. Die and you're only dead. But lose at football and you are disgraced for life. Typifying this mentality is Don Billingsley, father of running back Charles, who wants to beat the life out of his son for fumbling the football. Can't the kid see that you let down your teammates, your school, your town, your friends, your relatives and God Almighty if you fumble the f-ing football?
Also real is Boobie Miles's answer to what subject he gets all A's in: "There's only one subject. That's football." Or this line from a disappointed fan calling in to the local radio jock show after the team loses a game: "There's too much learning going on at that school." He's not kidding. He means it. Too much time in the classroom. Too little on the field.
So is this film--as its devoted fans believe and know to be true--an ode to the glory and beauty of football? Think again, jockstrap. It's a glorification. It represents a mentality in which the greatest events of life occur when you're eighteen years old. After that it's all over. What you got left is beer, the wife, TV, and Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." Or to choose another lyric, what you've got are "Veterans of the fight/Fast asleep at the traffic light." (Jackson Browne)
There are a number of goofs and anachronisms in the movie. IMDb lists a dozen or so including cars in the parking lots that weren't even made in 1988, the year of the film, and football gear used that didn't exist then. But that doesn't matter, and nobody who loves this film cares in the slightest about that because what really counts is the fantasy, the imagined and recalled glory of a time when everything was new and astonishingly vivid, when events made indelible marks on our hearts and souls. When we were all 17. This then is mythology in the making and in the living.
The question begs itself: is this good or is this bad? Is football as a religion something to be treasured or condemned? Personally I have mixed feelings. Young men have aggressive tendencies that need to be channeled and middle-aged men need to play war games. Football allows an acting out of these needs without undue harm to anyone. Certainly football is better than gang-banging.
When, some many years down the road, the history of cinema is brought up to date, this film will be remembered because it is a very good film, and Billy Bob Thornton's fine performance as Coach Gary Grimes will be appreciated. But instead of the film being seen as a realistic portrayal of what it's like to play and be involved in high school football, it will be seen as a commentary on the sociology of middle America in the late 20th century, a time when the nation was very rich and football was not only king but something close to a way of life, something indistinguishable from a national religion.
on 6 February 2016
Having watched the season series, I wanted to go back and re-live the movie too.
Differing from the Series, but still a good watch, and delivered from a slightly different perspective too.
A good feel-good movie
There can be no doubt that Friday Night Lights is a remarkably good motion picture, but I have to admit that I have mixed emotions about the film. Maybe that is a good thing because one thing this movie makes almost all of us do is think about ourselves. The majority of us are in there somewhere - maybe you're the dad who puts too much pressure on your kid to be a star athlete, or the coach's wife whose very way of life becomes defined by a simple game made much too complicated by the community, or the rabid fan who lives and dies with your team and never hesitates to berate a coach or player who makes one mistake. Maybe you're the star athlete who saw your dreams die in the form of a serious injury, or the little guy who had to prove your toughness, etc. If you care enough about sports to watch this movie, you're in here somewhere.
Back to my mixed feelings, though. I love football; it's a great sport that lets you have some fun and learn important lessons, such as teamwork, you can put to good use throughout your life - but there is an ugly side to the sport, and Friday Night Lights shows you just about everything that is wrong with this great game. There is nothing fun about being a Panther during the season chronicled in this film. On day one of practice, every kid on every high school team should want a state championship, but none should expect it. Desire brings out the best in you, while expectation sets you up for a fall. In Odessa, Texas, though, the very spirit of the game is betrayed by the adults in the community; not only do they expect a championship, they demand it; these most rabid of fans might know every play in the playbook, but they know nothing about what football (in my opinion) should really be all about. The stress these kids feel to not only win, but pulverize every opponent is much more than any 17-year-old should ever have to bear.
The film basically takes us through the 1988 football season for the Panthers, from the first practice to the final game. That first practice sets an ugly tone for what is to come, and things get even uglier when the team's star running back hurts his knee in the first game. It will not be a perfect season in Odessa. Losing, of course, brings out the worst in some people who were already pretty bad to begin with. The parent of a chronic fumbler, already embarrassed that his son isn't following in his footsteps, pretty much goes off the deep end; the quarterback, living with an ailing mother and desperate for a scholarship that can take him away from this town, gets pushed pretty close to the breaking point, and the star player refuses to believe he is seriously injured because he can't imagine a life without football. What of the coach, the enabler, the molder of young minds? Billy Bob Thornton may be terrific in this film, but I never got inside the head of the coach he played. In the end, I see him as perhaps the worst kind of coach you can have. He's not honest with his team, he doesn't take care of his players, and he puts an obviously injured player back in action without even consulting either of the doctors who examined him. He plays down expectations at times, but it's just an act; all too soon he is frothing at the mouth on the sidelines. Some say he figures things out in the end, realizes that football is just a game, but I disagree. That heartfelt talk with the quarterback: a cruel form of motivation; that half-time speech at the big game: more psychological motivation. It's all about winning for him - that's my interpretation, at least.
The film does have its moments, though. When the injured superstar finally breaks down, it's more than a poignant moment - the film virtually stops right there; it's one of the most powerful scenes I've seen in a long time. Other big moments, though, rubbed me the wrong way. Having your father finally show something better than contempt for you is good, but the reason why it happens in this case sends a message I find quite wrong.
This is definitely a film about high school football. Academics, the very thing that high school is supposed to be all about, is nowhere to be found here - except in the reading problems of a certain star athlete and random comments about more money going to athletics than education. As a full-fledged nerd, and as someone currently involved in education who has to hold his tongue when he sees luxurious athletics buildings erected on a campus desperately needing additional classrooms, I am going to have to stifle myself right here. It does disappoint me a little bit to interpret this film the way I do - for, the way I see it, it ultimately says winning isn't everything - but it is pretty darn close. Whatever its message, though, Friday Night Lights does make you think, and it is a gripping sports-related film, and that is more than enough to make it well worth watching.
on 4 May 2014
Having seen the great reviews and knowing that Jay Hernandez, Garrett Hedlund and Lucas Black were in the same movie I wanted to give this film a try, so to speak, and it's good. Billy Bob Thornton is always entertaining to watch.
on 22 October 2013
Good film to watch if this type of thing is what you're into. You're expecting it to be the typical film where they go on to win everything in the last second. However, there are plenty of twists and turns and sets the story out in a good way.
Mainly bought this after seeing the tv series and wanted to get another take on it.
Must say I wasn't disappointed whilst also admitting it won't go top in the top 100 films ever. Worth a watch if you fancy a chilled afternoon in front of an easy to watch film.
Almost everything works in this portrait of the madness for and
around high-school football in a small Texas town.
One of the best sports movies I've seen, largely because it's not really
about the sport, or the big game, or winning and losing. It's about
growing up, letting go of dreams, the pressure adults put on kids to fulfill
their own dreams, losing perspective and gaining it. It seems to try and
honestly look at both sides of U.S. high school football; how it helps young
men grow, challenge themselves and bond, but at the same time how it
subjects them to physical harm, an unrealistic set of expectations about life
after being a local star, and being forced to carry a whole town on your
shoulders when you're only 17.
Some terrific visuals, both in the quick cutting ferocity of the games, and in the
long aerial views of the empty Texas plains.
It does cheat in a few moments, trying to have it's cake and eat it too - a few plot
lines are resolved a touch too easily or neatly, a few plot twists feel too familiar
from other films. And I understand those that say the film displays a superior
attitude towards these small town people. But I found those weaker moments
fleeting in a film that surprised me with the strength of it's acting, writing, and filmmaking.
on 16 April 2012
This is a thoughtful film about the pressure that sportsmen have to perform. This central message of the film is brought into even clearer focus because it concentrates on the 1988 Odessa Permian Panthers high school American football team rather than a professional outfit. Used to success, the pressure on this group of high school seniors and their coach is huge. Local bigwigs stop the coach in the supermarket to remind him of their expectations, the sheriff lets the teenage players know he wants success. There is little football action for the first half hour as the director piles on the expectations before the season has begun, then the action begins in earnest, with the final half hour devoted to the state championship final. Injury to the star player early in the season throws a spanner in the works, and players and coach try to repair the damage as the expectations of the fans remain undiminished. Will they emulate their predecessors and win, or will they fail to match the expectations of the community that they are part of? The extras include an interesting 25-minute documentary showing the real 1988 Panthers and their memories of the season that Friday Night Lights has made famous.
on 17 September 2005
Without a doubt, the best sports movie of all time. It was a tragedy that so few British cinema's screened it (only four in all of the London area!). It is what a 'blockbuster' like Any Given Sunday wants to be. It puts you right in the heart of the action so that you feel every tackle, making it much more realistic than Varsity Blues. Also, knowing nothing about American Football is not a hindrance to loving this movie. Based on a true story. Highly recommended.