“I get straight A’s … I’m an athlete!”
Based upon H.G. Bissinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Odessa, Texas high-school football team, the Permian Panthers, rousing attempt to take the 1988 State Championship, Peter Berg’s movie adaptation roars out of the locker room as a serious indictment of the almost religious fervour foisted upon what, in essence, is just a game. Following the source material quite faithfully – with only a few dramatics added for filmic verve – Friday Night Lights manages to be an exhilarating and uplifting anthem for the dreams and aspirations of small town life, a tribute to the strength of character of young men saddled with the unenviable burden of bringing triumph to a scathingly fickle fan-base, and a simple appreciation of the primal bloodlust at the heart of such brutal contact sport. Now, I’m British, and I don’t understand American Football at all. Like a lot of people, I see armies of ludicrously padded jocks engaged in a needlessly complicated – and seemingly endless – game of three-second spurts of action that is all razzmatazz and no coherence. We have rugby, and we have football. Case closed. But … Friday Night Lights is about so much more than just the game. Sure, the game is the be-all and end-all for literally all of the characters in the film, with much footage devoted to the gruelling matches and almost all the talk revolving around the daft-helmeted sport, but Berg (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Aaron Cohen and is actually the original author’s cousin) understands the underlying drive that motivates such maniacal support, and the tragic consequences it can bring to boys on the brink of manhood pressured into carrying the merciless expectations of their homeland.
“I like enthusiasm … but, my goodness …”
Berg’s movie is blisteringly filmed with hand-held kinetics, the games themselves bone-crunching displays of impact-heavy, inter-personal mayhem that really place you on the pitch with all the swerving and diving chaos of Private Ryan’s beach landing. His style for the main is one of steady, eavesdropping chronicle, almost documentary in approach, yet brilliantly shot through with a natural intimacy that allows the many terrific performances to really shine. We’ve all seen the sporting under-dog formula played out a million times before and this clichéd ethic cannot be avoided here either, with all the required trials and tribulations that the Permian Panthers suffer along the way to the final – but, you’ve got to remember that this is a true story. And, like Rocky before it, it is the investment in character that has you rooting for the team, cheering their successes and weeping with their setbacks.
“Y’all wanna win – put Boobie in!”
Great things were expected of these young bucks and, it has to be said, their cinematic counterparts, rarely put a Nike-booted foot wrong in depicting their struggle for glory. Lucas Black as star quarterback Mike Winchell is wonderful in a role that sees the quiet and introverted player wrestle with his own self-belief, a crazed mother urging him on like a wild zealot and the heartrending testament from his peers that after high-school football, it’s all “just babies and memories.” He knows there is more to life than just the game, but the Catch 22 tripwire of this knowledge means that he can rarely achieve is true sporting potential with a lack of confidence on, and off, the pitch shackling his latent talents. Garrett Hedlund (Achilles’ doomed cousin Patroclus in Troy) as the running back son of a famed former Panther burns with the vicious put-downs he receives from his drunken father, who sees every slight miscalculation on the field as a personal insult to his once-glorious name. We’ve all seen this pairing before, but with country music star Tim McGraw’s expert transition to the big screen as the pathetically hard-bitten patriarch, there is a wealth of brutish insensitivity and regret, that is as believable as it is threatening. His firm, and distressing belief, that once the season and graduation are over then life has no meaning beyond bittersweet memory is tangible, poignant, and a shocking expose of the state’s absurd fixation with its weekly match. Make the most of it, son, ’cos your life and career won’t mean squat afterwards, it seems to say. A horrific mentality to enforce upon your children, and an element never skimped on in the movie, with a cuttingly matter-of-fact screenplay that even sees Billy Bob Thornton’s put-upon coach Gaines assiduously threatened by town big shots and even the Sheriff, himself, if he doesn’t come up with the goods. But it is Derek Luke as the popular, and cocky, superstar player, Boobie Miles that makes touchdown with a scintillating performance that becomes the movie’s indomitable, yet tragic, soul. Laugh with his locker room Bill Cosby impression, be impressed with his wholly convincing I-can-do-anything swagger and then weep right alongside him when his towering presence inevitably reaches meltdown. Never have crushed dreams stung so much as Boobie’s tear-jerking realisation that beyond football he has nothing else to fall back on and it will take a hard heart indeed, not to break at the sight of his awesome ego-deflation. This is a standout sequence in a film that it literally packed with such emotional highs and lows.
“They’re doing too much learnin’ in those schools.”
And what of Billy Bob, I hear you ask? Well, intricately observed and admirably restrained throughout any scene that isn’t actually on the side of the field, he hands in a performance that is, perhaps, of the only person in Odessa with his head screwed on properly. He knows that there is life beyond the game – and rightly so. He loves the kids on his team and instils the typical level of discipline and commitment with righteous gusto, but he is also pragmatic, reserved and just as eager to infuse them with the ethos that sport is all about having fun, as well. At one point he actually tells them that it’s not the winning but the taking part that is most important thing.How many real-life coaches, with this much pressure heaped upon them to succeed, would really adhere to this?Check out his troubled, yet resigned, smile when he finds his lawn festooned with For Sale signs after a game has not quite gone according to plan. Or rather, the legions of beer-swilling backseat coaches’ plans. He really does have the job that nobody would want. Thornton’s portrayal adds a calm-before-the-storm reassurance and ultimately reveals a courage that is as inspiring as anything witnessed on the field. And, wisely, he allows the kids themselves the run of the show by never stealing the limelight, his acting cleverly understated and held in check beneath a pleasant, if earnest, smirk and an un-pushy, yet still demanding demeanour.
“Do you ever feel cursed, coach?”
Friday Night Lights really is a thunderous tale of true spirit, both team and individual, triumph over adversity – in much more than just the sporting sense – and the ridiculous importance that people place on a game revolving around fridge-sized players running a few yards with a funny-shaped ball. Much has been said about it not really being about American Football as such, but this is untrue. The entire original story, and by obvious extension the film as well, completely hinges upon it. But, and this is the really clever thing, your knowledge of, or even interest in, the game is wholly irrelevant to what is a truly galvanising and air-punchingly emotional tale of crushed dreams and intense ideals. I’ve come away from it knowing perhaps even less about the sport than I did before, but this, in no way whatsoever, detracted from enjoyment of what is a great, and important, movie about the pain some blinkered people inflict upon the already traumatic boy-to-manhood transformation. If this one-track section of society really believes that there is nothing beyond the game, then shame on them. Still, this short-sightedness has made for a marvellous film.
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