Friday Night Lights (7/10)

by Tony Medley

This is a movie about high school football in Texas, period. There’s no romance, no sex, no profanity, no deaths, few women. It’s about football.

Although the producers went out of their way to hire real, live football players to be most of the extras in the football games, the Director, Peter Berg, used Chicago-like quick cuts to portray the football action. We rarely see a play from start to finish. Worse, they’ve succumbed to the terrible temptation of boosting the sound to make the violence completely out of proportion to the action. If the hits in these games were as bad as Berg makes them sound, they’d need coffins at every high school football game. When you’re actually in a football game, you don’t hear the sounds as viciously as you hear them in this movie.

Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is a much-maligned coach of Odessa’s Permian High School’s Panthers, who have a vaunted reputation and a plethora of dedicated alumni, none of whom will tolerate anything less than a state championship. This, despite the fact that they’ve only won three, the last of which was eight years prior to the year we’re watching, which is 1988. Why Coach Gaines must win or lose his job is not explained satisfactorily.

The film concentrates on six players, the four main ones being Gayle Sayers-type running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), Quarterback Mike Mitchell (Lucas Black), Receiver Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), and running back Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young). Luke displays many emotions and is definitely not from the Sean Penn School of Acting. When Luke cries, he cries lots of real tears. Penn and Tim Robbins and Charlize Theron should take some lessons from him.

The only real relationship that’s developed is that between Don Billingsley and his father, Charles (Tim McGraw), although Mitchell worries about his mother a lot and Boobie has an uncle, L.V. (Grover Coulson) who seems close but makes a really bad decision. Gaines doesn’t establish any kind of relationship with anyone. The only emotion he shows is when he’s yelling at his players.

So we’re left to watch a football season through quick cut camera work. In the ultimate championship game, the clock is nonsensical. It only takes 8 seconds to run off two plays after the two minute mark is reached, and it only takes 20 seconds to run off three plays, even though nobody calls timeout, nobody goes out of bounds and there are no incomplete passes, all of which would stop the clock.

The film is based on H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, which told the story of the Permian High School football team in Odessa, Texas, in 1988. It’s advertised as one of the “great sports films of all time.” It’s not. For instance, we’re never shown how Gaines molds these boys into a winning team, like Miracle (2004) did. There are virtually no personality conflicts, which are inevitable in team sports, no player disagreements with the coach, like in Hoosiers (1986). Gaines’ character is little more than a paper mâche cutout. Except for an inspirational halftime speech, which is about as far away from what Knute Rockne might have said as humanly possible, Gaines adds virtually nothing to the movie or the team.

Like Ladder 49, this is pretty much a movie without a premise. It’s really a documentary, and, to be fair, it doesn’t claim to be anything else. As such, it’s far too long with too many magnolious collisions on the field with little consequence. I’m not too sure that women will like this, although the lady I sat next to, from Variety, enjoyed it. I didn’t like the quick cuts and the amplified noise that made each tackle sound like Armageddon. Nevertheless, I didn’t look at my watch that much. The acting is uniformly good, especially Derek Luke. In judging my opinion of this movie, you should take into consideration that I like football.

October 5, 2004

The End