Every once in awhile a film comes along that gets its subject matter exactly right. Not close, not tolerably accurate, but so dead-on precise that the memory center of your brain can’t stop cheering, “Oh, yes, I remember!” Such is the case with Friday Night Lights, director Peter Berg’s adaptation of the bestselling true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers.
Set in the dusty West Texas community of Odessa, every detail of the Panthers run up to the playoffs perfectly captures the frenzied obsession of small-town football that is as inappropriate as it is infectious. The “Gone to the Game” signs in front of every store window; the camaraderie of knowing that the town’s entire population of 20,000 will be at the same place at the same time; the energizing feeling of having something to do in a place where there’s usually nothing to do…. Friday Night Lights takes you deep into the sights, sounds, and excitement that is high-school football in the West.
Shot with a shaky handheld camera to evoke a documentary feel, the movie focuses primarily on the kind of drama that can only take place on the field. For the 17-year-old athletes of Odessa, there’s no such thing as a school counselor–players work out their personal problems by slamming into the opposing team like Mack trucks on a decline with the brakes out. In fact, by downplaying the personal aspects of the athletes’ lives, Lights ends up bringing more emotion and sincerity to those private moments it does dally with. There are career-ending injuries here, as well as both sacrificial parents and abusive ones, but their impact pales in comparison to the significance of the next first down.
Breathing life into the man written into sports history by Berg’s second cousin, H. G. Bissinger, Billy Bob Thornton as coach Gary Gaines projects the respect and weariness that comes from carrying the weight of a community on his shoulders. Not only do the hopes and dreams of his athletes ride on the numbers projected on the scoreboard, the hopes and dreams of his neighbors do as well. While there’s something terribly nostalgic about that, there’s also something terribly unhealthy, and Berg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the game.
Idol worshippers tend to demand sacrifices when the objects of their worship don’t live up to expectation, as coach Gaines learns after a couple of losses when he returns home to find “For Sale” signs planted all over his front yard. But if Gaines has it bad, the team has it even worse. The playful punches the boys receive from fists wearing decades-old championship rings have a tinge of seriousness to them. The teens don’t feel so much encouraged when old timers tell them how great they are as they do threatened. And a caller to a local sports show even suggests that their brief losing streak is the schools’ fault for making the players spend too much time studying useless subjects like Literature.
Every performance in Friday Night Lights rings true–including country singer Tim McGraw (a.k.a. Faith Hill’s husband) as a hypercritical father with a drinking problem. Thornton is especially effective as a coach who has to grapple with the fact that he may have made a preoccupied decision that ends the professional hopes of one of his boys. But the real stars are the athletes themselves. Each in their own way embodies the persona of high schoolers so many of us remember. One parties too hard to avoid problems at home; one is a goody two-shoes who doesn’t quite comprehend the leadership he’s capable of; one is a loveable showboat who uses his talent to slack off in other areas.
But don’t think that just because these boys are familiar, they devolve into clichés. We recognize them, but we don’t patronize them, if for no other reason than, as the bone-shattering action shots make clear, the gamble they are taking is staggering. They may get scholarships, but they may get forever-hobbled knees.
Lights doesn’t delve into the future of the players other than to give us brief credit lines revealing where they are today. Yet somehow, even the fact that most go on to careers as insurance salesmen and land surveyors fits. Without a pro athlete in the bunch, we realize that theirs is the most attainable American dream–to bask in a moment of raucous, youthful glory, then quietly go on to family and adult responsibility, content with the admiration of loved ones. None of these young men walk away with Heismans, but every one of them is a hero, for good or for ill, to the people who were there to share their day in the sun, or night in the lights, as the case may be.
I remember my father complaining how ludicrous the school board of our own dusty football town was that it would rather let the classrooms burst at the seams than build a second high school and split the football program. And he was right–it was ridiculous to handicap an entire district for the sake of a single athletic team. But that kind of thinking was best left for weekdays, if I remember correctly. On the weekends, we never missed a game.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.