FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is the second best movie ever about high school football.
(Although it's a close call, I still think that the title for the best should
continue to be held by the documentary GO TIGERS!) One reason that FRIDAY
NIGHT LIGHTS gets so much of it right is that director Peter Berg (THE RUNDOWN)
is working from his cousin Buzz Bissinger's book "Friday Night Lights: A Town,
a Team, and a Dream" about the quest for the 1988 state championship by the
Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas. With some of the most realistic
football action ever, it'll have you vicariously feeling the players' pain as
they hit with explosive and horrendously punishing blows. A sport like boxing
looks almost tame in comparison to the physical damage these gridiron players
have to endure.
The movie pulls no punches in its depiction of the sport. In fact, the movie's
sole downfall is its long obsession in the first act with the downside of high
school sports. From abusive, alcoholic fathers to mentally unstable mothers,
it just lays it on a little too thick. But that is a quibble. What is great
about the picture is the way it takes us inside the hearts and minds of the
players, coaches, relatives and townsfolk. The pressures the town places on
the team and the team on itself are enormous.
In an Oscar contending performance, Billy Bob Thornton plays Coach Gary Gaines,
a man of many moods, whatever the occasion demands. He is stoic as he listens
to the endless and useless advice every citizen of Odessa seems to think it is
their God-given right to give "their" coach. The small town is filled with
fathers who view their days on the high school football field as the most
important moment in their lives. And, for many, the only important moment.
Coach Gaines does all of the PG-13-rated ranting imaginable at his team when
they underperform, and he makes moving and eloquent locker room speeches to
motivate them to be "perfect," as he likes to put it. Real Texas coaches only
know how to speak in an R-rated vernacular, but I'm glad the script stuck with
the more marketable PG-13-rated lines since the movie deserves a wide
(A story like this really resonated with me since I was a member of the Garland
Owls, a high school that played in the largest division in the state of Texas
and won the state championship two years in a row -- 1963 and 1964 -- when I
was a player. I remember the "two a days" referred to obliquely in the movie.
Those are the hellacious two-a-day practices in the 100+ heat of the Texas
summer. Like the Panthers, we too were a small team who faced much larger
opponents, who naturally inflicted enormous pain and suffering upon us. We
even had a big comeback game in the playoffs much like in the movie.)
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is filled with surprising moments. Initially a one-person
team, the Panthers eventually find the strength to go on when their
sure-to-be-pro-bound running back, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), suffers a knee
injury which puts him out of commission. This charismatic motor mouth is the
type who is irritatingly just as good as he thinks he is. Grover Coulson, in a
touching performance, plays the boy's uncle and guardian, L.V. The two of them
want great things for Boobie and aren't above lying to the coach, if necessary,
to get them. And the coach, knowing full well that the town is ready to fire
him if he doesn't deliver, is willing to turn a blind eye to an obvious lie
about the severity of an injury if it helps the team.
The movie, which provides copious screen time to the sports action -- which is
as satisfying as it is extraordinary -- takes plenty of time as well in
developing the stories of the players. My personal favorite was Chris Comer
(Lee Thompson Young), a running back who spent so much time warming the bench
that he can't find his helmet when the coach suddenly decides to put him in for
the sole purpose of relieving Boobie, the team's star. I warmed many a bench
in my day. I was proud just to be there. Hey, I endured those horrendous
practices just like everyone else. Actually, our coach would have shot us if
we had ever even considered sitting down during the game so "bench warming"
really is something of a misnomer.
All of the games in the film are great, but the story reaches its zenith in the
adrenaline-pumping big state championship game the Panthers play against some
monster sized kids from Dallas Carter. Played in a packed Astrodome, the game
had me literally in goose bumps and with my heart going into overdrive. This
has to go down as one of the best ending games on film. I didn't think I would
survive, much less those on the screen. Well, this month I head back to Texas
to rejoin my teammates for the 40th celebration of our championships. This
movie rekindled some great memories for me for that trip.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS runs 1:57. It is rated PG-13 for "thematic issues, sexual
content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action" and would be
acceptable for kids around 12 and up.
Copyright © 2004 Steve Rhodes