As a former sportswriter, I've walked the sidelines of about 200 high school football games. I've been in locker rooms and weight rooms and press boxes high above the field. I've been to booster club meetings and season-ending award banquets. I've gotten to know dozens of coaches and hundreds of players.
I've seen the game about closely as an "outsider" can see it. I've seen it in schools where football was just a way to pass the time till basketball season. And I've seen it in schools where football is practically a way of life, where 10,000 people regularly turn out for games, where being on the team is sort of a badge of honor and a ticket to big-time status—not just in the halls, but in the community. I've been in places where more people could tell you the name of the high school quarterback than the name of the mayor.
So it was in Florida, where winning was … important. Notice I didn't say everything. Students and coaches felt pressure—much from within, some from the community—to win, but it wasn't everything.
That's apparently not the case at football-mad Permian High School in Odessa, Texas—at least according to Friday Night Lights, the latest film from Oscar-winning producer Brian Glazer. At Permian, winning is everything, and this movie portrays that loud and clear. The film, directed by Peter Berg, is based on the critically acclaimed book of the same title by Pulitzer Prize-winning author H. G. Bissinger. The book and film chronicle the 1988 season at Permian, one of the nation's top high school football programs.
Let me begin by saying that this is one of the best—if not the best—sports movies I've ever seen. It's extremely well done on all fronts—emotive acting, convincing (though sometimes overdone) plays on the field, terrific cinematography, snappy editing and sensitive direction. You'll feel like you're a part of the film—on the field, in the locker room, on the sidelines. You'll get attached to the characters, flaws and all. You'll get caught up in the excitement. But don't misread me: While there are certainly moments where you'll find yourself cheering for the home team, this is not really a "feel-good" sports movie. It's intense, it's in your face, and parts of it are gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch (more on that later). If you want a feel-good movie about high school football, check out Remember the Titans, also one of my favorites.
When it comes to football, Odessa might well be called "Obsessa." The town is obsessed—sometimes in quite unhealthy ways—with its beloved Permian Panthers and their battle cry of "Mojo!" They consistently fill up the school's 20,000-seat stadium. (Yes, you read that right: A high school football stadium for twenty thousand.) If you cruise the downtown streets on a Friday evening, you'll find all the businesses closed, with "Gone to Game" signs in the windows. Everybody—parents, faculty, businessmen, the booster club, and even the local cop who asks, "You boys gonna win this week?"—is caught up in the madness … and the obsessive desire to win at almost any cost.
And it all falls upon the shoulders of a few dozen teenagers who put on the pads every week.
The intense pressure is captured perfectly in one scene, where a couple of players are skeet-shooting out in a field the day after a loss: "We gotta lighten up," says one. "We're 17." His teammate, the quarterback shouldering the heaviest burden and highest expectations, replies, "Do you feel 17? I don't feel 17."
Indeed, the adults—including the football coaches—seem to want these boys to grow up too fast, too furious, to carry more responsibility than a 17-year-old should. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), for example, is concerned about his mother's failing mental health, but Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) tells Mike he has to look out for himself, and that when he does, "You're going to seriously fly, son." My goodness, the kid's not only expected to lead his team to victories, but to neglect his mother too?
Thornton (Sling Blade, Bad Santa, The Alamo) turns in a stellar performance as Gaines, who coached Permian 1986-89 before moving on to the college ranks; he's now head coach at Abilene Christian University, where the school's mission statement is to "educate students for Christian service and leadership throughout the world." If Gaines is a believer, that isn't made clear in Friday Night Lights. He leads his team in The Lord's Prayer and occasionally shows a sensitive side, but he's also portrayed as an incredibly demanding coach who doesn't hesitate to chew out—and even humiliate—his players. (It's worth noting that Gaines rarely uses bad language in his tirades—unlike many "vocabularly-challenged" high school coaches I've known through the years.)
It's not easy to peg Gaines's character, at least as portrayed in this film. We've all seen the trailers where he tells his team before the season begins, "Make no mistake about it, gentlemen: We are in the business of winning. This is real, sincere warfare. And you will be perfect." Perfect? How's a 17-year-old boy supposed to deal with that kind of demand?
But then, one could say that Jesus is being too demanding by telling us to "be perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Was Gaines, then, being a hard-nosed jerk—or was he being Christ-like? Christ waited until later to tell his followers what he meant by perfection: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). Similarly, Gaines waits till later to tell his followers—his players—how he defines perfection. In a stirring halftime speech near the end of the film—and near the end of the season—Gaines says, "Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever, because forever is about to happen. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, with love and joy in your heart? If you can, you're perfect."
I can live with that definition of perfect, but I wanted to say, "Gee, thanks, Coach. Why didn't you tell us this at the beginning of the season? It would've taken a lot of the pressure off, you know?"
And yet Coach Gaines is an angel compared to one player's father. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is a third-string senior tailback who just can't hang on to the football; he's always fumbling it away. His obsessed father, Charlie Billingsley—played brilliantly by country music star Tim McGraw in his feature film debut—is a former Permian player with a state championship ring … which is about the closest thing you can get to wearing a royal crown in Odessa. The elder Billingsley, who battles a drinking problem and the personal demons of unreasonable expectations, constantly berates his son about his inability to hold on to the ball. At home, the situation turns outright abusive, and it's extremely uncomfortable to watch. It's a subplot throughout the film—and that subplot alone makes this movie unsuitable for younger viewers.
Another subplot clearly illustrates the madness surrounding Permian football. When star tailback "Boobie" Miles (Derek Luke) suffers a knee injury early in the season, Coach Gaines is under a lot of pressure to get him back on the field ASAP—especially after the Panthers lose the next game without Miles. An Odessa doctor, suspecting a torn anterior cruciate ligament, urges Boobie to go to Midland for an MRI. Boobie and his football-obsessed uncle wait for weeks before heeding the advice, only to hear that indeed, the ACL is torn and that Boobie should not play again. Boobie goes berserk in the doctor's office, accusing him of being paid off because he's from Midland—home to Permian's big rival. So he refuses to believe the news—or, more like it, to face reality—and goes back and tells Coach Gaines his knee is fine. Gaines puts him in the game, and you can guess what happens to Boobie. The problem here is that Gaines took Boobie's word for it, and didn't follow up with the Midland doctor himself—something a head coach should certainly do. So why didn't he? Likely because he is also under a ton of pressure to win, no matter the cost—so he didn't want to face reality, either.
But this is not a complaint about the film. I think the filmmakers—thanks to their source material, the original book—do a remarkable job of accurately capturing the emotions and twisted thinking of a football-crazy town. And really, it could be a depiction of any football-crazy (or basketball-crazy or baseball-crazy or anything-crazy) town, anywhere in America. One lesson here is that it's very easy for our healthy passions to become our unhealthy obsessions, and we thus need to keep them in check. When our passions become obsessions, it's hard to recognize when we've crossed that line—and we pay for it. But even worse, the kids—the teenagers who are the objects of our obsession—pay for it even more. On the one hand, the unreasonable expectations are simply too much. And on the other, they're treated like rock stars, so it's got to do something to their fragile egos as well. That's not to say that every Permian football player turns out to be a head case incapable of handling "real life," but I'd say that most of them had some adjustments to make—some more than others.
The film ends on a nice note—though not on a predictable one, thank goodness—and we see the seniors moving on to what's next, while passing the torch—I mean, the pigskin—to the next generation.
You'll leave the theater somewhat emotionally spent—feeling like you've been tackled by a 220-pound linebacker—but it's worth the ride. Friday Night Lights not only nails it when it comes to capturing the atmosphere of a football-crazy town and school, but it's one of the best sports movies I've ever seen—and certainly one of the very best of the fall films currently in theaters.
For an incredibly in-depth look at the Permian football program, check out the award-winning website MoJoLand.Discussion starters
- What did you think of Coach Gaines? What are his good qualities? What are his bad ones?
- What players do you think handled the pressure the best, and why? Which ones handled it the worst, and why? How could any of the players have handled the pressure better?
- What did you think of the coach's definition of "perfection" near the end of the movie? Jesus also tells us to be perfect; what does Jesus mean by that? (See Matthew 5:48 and 19:2)
- How did Don Billingsley deal with his abusive father? What might he have done differently?
- What's the difference between being passionate about something, and being obsessed about it? What are you passionate about? What are you obsessive about? How can you "fix" that?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film is rated PG-13 for "thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action." One of the "thematic issues" is parental abuse—verbal and physical—between a father and son, some of it quite intense. The sexual content and teen drinking are limited to a brief party scene early in the movie. And while there is some strong language, there's not as much as you might expect in a football movie. All in all, take the PG-13 rating seriously; the abusive situations alone might make you think twice before taking anyone under 15 or 1
Photos © Copyright Universal Studioscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/14/04
Most sports films (e.g. Chariots of Fire, The Mighty Ducks, The Rookie) focus on underdogs who rise to the challenge and achieve greatness. Friday Night Lights, director Peter Berg's adaptation of the best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger, is much more complicated. Its true-to-life storytelling of a football team in a Texas small town gives viewers an unconventionally honest view of high school athletics and the cost of making victory too high a priority. Billy Bob Thornton is earning points as the determined coach, and Derek Luke continues to draw rave reviews just as he did in Antwone Fisher and Pieces of April.
"This is one of the best—if not the best—sports movies I've ever seen," says Mark Moring (Christianity Today Movies). "It's extremely well done on all fronts—emotive acting, convincing (though sometimes overdone) plays on the field, terrific cinematography, snappy editing, and sensitive direction. You'll get caught up in the excitement. But don't misread me: While there are certainly moments where you'll find yourself cheering for the home team, this is not really a 'feel-good' sports movie. It's intense, it's in your face, and parts of it are gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "The best thing about Friday Night Lights is neither the story, the direction, nor the acting, as great as all these are. It's the film's message, which portrays in no uncertain terms both the seduction and the fleeting nature of football fame."
Marvin Olasky (World) examines the various elements that earned the film a PG-13 rating, and concludes, "The negatives may be positives, depending on parents' evaluation of their children's maturity. And the biggest positive may be terrific acting by many, including Billy Bob Thornton … and Derek Luke."
Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) says it's "more than just a great sports movie; it is a great movie—period. Friday Night Lights compels you to examine your life, to make sure you haven't lost track of why you are living it, and to refocus on doing your best, on striving toward achieving something extraordinary."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) is more hesitant to dig into the bag of superlatives. "If the film shocks those people into reordering their priorities and cutting their local athletic program some slack, it will serve a purpose. However, some young people will internalize the message that they should turn their senior year into an excuse to party and sleep around because, after all 'it's all downhill from there.' For those viewers, the movie will do far more harm than good."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "not just a 'sports movie'—though virtually every frame of the film involves football—but an engrossing, at times unsettling, portrait of the lives and fragile dreams of young athletes and their families in economically depressed communities across America. [It] differs from most feel-good sports movies in that it exposes the unpleasant side of high-stakes amateur athletics: an unhealthy pressure cooker where teens are asked to shoulder the expectations of entire communities and where coaches are paid more than teachers."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it's "surprisingly effective in capturing the small town fascination and nearly obsessive-behavior associated with high school sports. It is more realistic than Remember the Titans or Varsity Blues. It is probably most reminiscent of Hoosiers."
"The primary lesson is that there is nobility and reward in passionate engagement in life, that pursuing a goal that is beyond your reach brings with it the strength and character that can feed and sustain you emotionally, physically, and perhaps, for a time—spiritually," writes Kenneth Morefield (Christian Spotlight). "The curse is that these rewards are inextricably linked to a game that is arbitrary and undependable: happiness is never assured, and, once attained, it can be taken from you at any moment. Friday Night Lights works best in its moments where it is most honest about the curse as well as the hope."
Mainstream critics throw a few penalty flags, but overall they judge it a winner.
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