Let me be clear about this right now; if I had seen Friday Night Lights two months earlier, it would have been on my year end 10 Best List. Director Peter Berg has done something truly remarkable for I don’t know if I’ve been as moved by a sports-film as I was by Friday Night Lights. Yes, even Rocky. What? No, I wouldn’t call Bring It On a sports-film and no, not moved in that way. Based on a true story and on the best selling book of the same title, Friday Night Lights makes no apologies for what it is. I cannot tell you how refreshing that is. Berg seems to have no agenda except to tell the story–admittedly in a very dramatic way–of what happened to the Permian High Panthers in Odessa, West Texas during their 1988 campaign to become State Champs. Fuck an A I love this movie.
I grew up in Southern California and went to pretty damn football-centric high school. I saw one of my teammates beat a guy’s head through a window in math class and he didn’t get suspended even though we had a “zero tolerance” policy regarding fights. We had a game the next day, and if the player in question got suspended, he wouldn’t have been allowed to play. Our stadium held (I think) about 5,000 people. It was a mad house come game day. Totally packed. The town I lived in had about 125,000 people. In Odessa, Texas, according to Google, there are about 90,000 people, probably less back in 1988, and their stadium holds 22,000 souls. I can only imagine. I have read about and seen stories explaining just how crazed folks in Texas are about their high school football. I have no reason to doubt their passion. In Friday Night Lights, and probably in reality, the focus and center of attention of the entire town is on the football team. Again, I love this film because it doesn’t focus on the why; that’s how things were, here is what happened. True, when a caller to a local talk station explains one of the team’s losses by saying, “There’s too much learning going on at that school,” you could analyze the statement for some sort of sociological commentary, but the caller has a point. I mean, they did lose the game. I really loved that when Coach Gaines (Thornton) comes home after the teams first loss, his front yard is covered in “for sale” signs. That’s football.
The movie opens with the focus squarely on star running back Boobie Miles (played by the always excellent–even in Biker Boyz–Derek Luke). He’s loud, he’s brash, he’s a “big nigger,” to quote the wife of one of Odessa’s civic leaders. And he can run like the wind. Every college is after him. From USC to UCLA, all of them. Think Walter Payton crossed with Earl Campbell. If nothing goes well for the Panthers, at least Boobie’s future is bright. And then BOOM!–he blows his knee out in the opening game. One of the more heart breaking aspects of the film is Boobie and his Uncle’s refusal to accept the injury. They journey to Midland, Texas to see a specialist, and when the doctor tells Boobie his knee is in fact badly torn, not sprained, Boobie almost kills the man. His whole world is tied up in the fact that he will play NFL ball someday and get his family out of the ghetto. The colleges stop calling him and finally Boobie goes to empty his locker. Along with his trademark “black Nikes” he removes some Mercedes Benz catalogs. Keeping a very stiff upper lip, he wishes his teammates the best and leaves. Then, climbing into his Uncle’s car, Boobie breaks down crying, for he knows his future, the only future he has ever contemplated, is gone. Devastating stuff, friends.
I’ve really got to tip my hat to Tim McGraw. Yeah, that Tim McGraw. He plays Charlie Billingsley, the father of fullback Don Billingsley. When Charlie was at Permian the Panthers won State. It was the greatest achievement of his life and he lets his son know about it almost constantly. McGraw, who had every opportunity to overact while playing the usual white trash alcoholic asshole abusive father, approached the role with a subtly that was downright spooky. At practice, Don is fumbling the ball. Another parent asks Charlie if Don is really from his gene pool. Charlie tells the guy where to stick it, but then he starts haranguing his son from the stands. Soon enough he is on the field screaming at his son. The Charlie starts pushing and hitting Don and the rest of the team (and the coaches) can only stand embarrassedly by, watching as if this is normal behavior. In another great scene, Charlie finds Don and a girl making out on the couch. While fumbling around to get their clothes off, the two knocked over a lamp. At first Charlie really inappropriately comments on how Don’s girl has grown (her shirt’s off) and then asks Don what happened to the lamp. Don replies, “I dropped it.” Charlie nods and then says, “You dropped the lamp, you can’t hold onto the football.” Then Charlie goes fucking crazy and duct tapes a football into his son’s hands and begins punching it while screaming at Don about dropping the ball. Throughout, McGraw is fantastic. I really hope he quits his bullshit musical crap and concentrates on acting fulltime.
From beginning to the gut-wrenching end, Friday Night Lights succeeds in every single way. Steady, moving performances, excellent use of music, fantastic action to the point where I found myself clapping after one score, biting tension and a really great story. Surprisingly and thankfully it avoids the pitfalls of most other high school sports-films (think Remember the Titans). There are no idiotic comic relief characters, no stupid scenes where a player has to choose between the team and something else, players don’t break out in lame songs; nothing of the sort. Even the party scene was realistic. It is rare when movies get everything right, and Friday Night Lights does just that. It even has a twist, yet satisfying, ending. While it is no surprise that this film got totally overlooked by the Academy come Oscar time, while shit like The Aviator and Finding Neverland get lauded all the way to heaven, it is still upsetting and unjust. Way to go Mr. Berg, way to fucking go.