In 2004, H.P. Bissinger’s account of the 1988 Permian Panthers' football season in Odessa, Texas became a film. By Hollywood standards, it's fairly gritty and, despite some flaws, worth watching.
I recognize some of the elements in this film as exaggerations of trends found in many high school athletic programs. At other times, to we not from those American states where high school football has become something akin to religion, Friday Night Lights can feel like an anthropological study of some distant culture's practices— like footbinding in China, say, or child-rearing in Sparta. Odessa was experiencing economic downturn in 1988 when this story takes place; football appears to be the only upbeat element in many people’s lives. The city goes beyond an enthusiastic interest in the game. Shops close on game days. Local businesses and teachers cater to and pamper players—- so long as they keep winning. A game loss leads fans to pepper coach Gaines’ lawn with "For Sale" signs. A caller to a radio show complains that the school overemphasizes "learning," a remark made even more shocking by the fact that the opposite appears true. Gaines makes more money than the principal, and the poverty-stricken city supports a grandiose stadium. The kids are told they are "protecting" their community, and face pressure that goes far beyond the challenging of abilities. They are made to feel that winning is the only thing that matters in their lives, or ever will matter.
Nowhere does this attitude prove more damaging than in the case of James "Boobie" Miles (Derek Luke), expected to be the decisive factor in the Permian Panthers’ season. Miles, brash and athletically gifted, receives offers from prominent universities despite the fact that he has difficulty reading their brochures. He runs to practice, followed by a posse of children. He struts and brags, imitating Mohammed Ali's patter. When a serious injury removes him from the game, he loses his sense of identity and direction, because he’s been given nothing else except football. He has so limited a scope that, when a doctor tells him he won’t play again, he accuses the man of being on a rival team’s payroll. Later, Boobie sits on his porch and watches men collect the neighborhood trash. In his mind, the choice was between football glory and garbage collection1.
Another extreme case involves Don Bissinger (Garrett Hedlund). His father (Tim McGraw) is one of the film's familiar types; he's the former jock whose best years really did occur in high school. His life has skidded downwards since. He drinks heavily and attempts to relive his own brief moment of glory through his son. At one point, he breaks in on the boy and his half-naked girlfriend. After commenting crudely on her appearance, he then attacks his son and duct tapes a football to his arm, berating him for having fumbled it earlier that day.
Over the course of the film, we do see character development in this relationship—- something the movie overall lacks.
Other players, such as Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) appear more balanced. They play hard, but they can see a glimpse of life’s potentials after they graduate.
The American film convention of using twentysomethings to play teenagers, never convincing, seriously undercuts the gritty realism which this film wants to create. The players are supposed to be seventeen; the principal actors range in age from twenty to thirty and, despite strong acting, their age shows.
Billy Bob Thornton gives a strong, understated performance as Coach Gaines. Unfortunately, the script reveals too little about his character, and he suffers from the same lack of development that marks the other characters.
Friday Night Lights features some extraordinary cinematography, shots which communicate far more than most of the dialogue. Rodin said that "ugliness in nature can in art become full of beauty." The notion apparently applies to industrial ugliness, as well. I found myself admiring the beautiful shots this film features of an ugly, dispiriting landscape which further suggest why so many of these players want to leave their city.2. Meanwhile, handheld cameras and quick, sometimes jarring cuts create the sense that we’re watching a documentary of events, rather than scripted drama.
Friday Night Lights also creates genuine excitement, and captures the feel of live sports with quick cuts among the field, the sidelines, and the supporters. Cheers and boos interrupted by barely-contextualized snippets of crowd dialogue recall the sound of the stands on game day. Real intensity and suspense accompanies the final game.
Unlike the more typical, feel-good variety of high school sports film where the soundtrack can drown out the film, Friday Night... uses music lightly. Understated guitar accentuates most scenes. Only in bigger, louder moments does the film make use of overblown pop, generally to good effect.
Some critics have compared this film with 2002’s Thirteen, another fragmented, harsh film about teen lives shaped by a twisted value system. Arguably, Friday Night Lights is the more disturbing of the two. True, its misplaced values are less extreme than Thirteen's. but it presents them as cultural norms. Boobie's belief that the doctor has been bribed to lie about his condition seems ridiculous, and an opposing team’s coaches' desire for a racially favorable balance among officials comes across as paranoid. Yet one wonders. The final game shows officials blatantly miscalling the game in one team's favour, and some of the Carter coaches and players demonstrate an offensive lack of ethics.3 The emphasis on a winning season could corrupt otherwise reasonable adults.
The film does not focus exclusively on the negative. The team learns to work together. The game provides a rallying point that might be positive, if the fans managed to keep a sane perspective. Gaines, in one of the later scenes, tries to put the game in a healthy context.
In the end, I felt I had watched a balanced if incomplete portrayal of youth shaped by extreme attitudes. If I did not come to know the characters as well as I might have, I could at least feel for them. Young people need real challenges to grow, but they also need to be reminded that few people make it big in professional sports, and high school takes up roughly 5% of the average person’s life.
A Friday Night Lights television series started during the 2006/2007 tv season.
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg.
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
Billy Bob Thornton...Coach Gary Gaines
Lucas Black...Mike Winchell
Garrett Hedlund...Don Billingsley
Derek Luke...James "Boobie" Miles
Jay Hernandez...Brian Chavez
Lee Jackson...Ivory Christian
Lee Thompson Young...Chris Comer
Tim McGraw...Charles Billingsley
Grover Coulson...L.V. Miles
Connie Britton...Sharon Gaines
Connie Cooper...Mrs. Winchell
Morgan Farris...Jennifer Gaines
1. In real life, Miles became a truck driver. He also has attempted to become a hip hop performer, and he had troubles with the law.
2. I apologize to anyone who lives in Odessa. I can only review the world constructed by the film; I cannot speak to its accuracy.
3. I do not know if these elements correctly represent the Permian/Carter game, which the filmmakers did overtly revise in other ways for dramatic purposes. A few people have wondered about racism in the depiction, since the Carter Cowboys, so poorly portrayed, are an all-Black team, while the Permian Panthers are racially mixed, but predominantly White. It should be noted that, whatever happened at the 1988 Permian/Carter game (a semi-final in real-life, and not the final depicted in this movie), the Carter team went on to win the State championship, only to lose the title due to their use of an ineligible player.