Twilight years

Under 'Friday Night Lights' young men's dreams are forced into early retirement

In 1988, H. G. Bissinger, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, moved himself and his family to Odessa, the town in West Texas, not Ukraine. Like an anthropologist doing field work on tribal customs in the Kalahari, Bissinger spent a year studying the football culture of the Permian Basin. The result, a book published in 1990 titled Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, exposed Odessa as a godforsaken place where high school football is worshipped as the local deity. In the Jewish tradition out of which Bissinger descends, Friday night lights mean sabbath candles, but the artificial lights that chase the darkness from the West Texas plains are as sacred to the 20,000 fans who converge on enormous and expensive Ratliff Stadium Friday nights in autumn.

In Bissinger's book, the coach at Odessa Permian was paid more than the principal, and the paramount principle for civic identity was victory for the high school football team. If the Panthers lost to Abilene, Permian was nothing. At a time when one college sports program after another was being tarnished by scandal, Bissinger's book, while empathetic with the adolescent athletes, portrayed Odessa as the capital of gladiatorial culture in which nothing, not even education, is allowed to get in the way of gaining a state championship. A critical and commercial success, Friday Night Lights hit home, which is why death threats kept its author from returning to Odessa.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Permian Panthers coach Gary Gaines, a man who understands the pressure and the fleeting nature of high school football glory, in Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights.
Director Peter Berg is Bissinger's cousin, and when he went to Odessa to turn the book into a movie, the natives were friendly. When I saw Friday Night Lights at a special screening in San Antonio for local high school players and coaches, they responded as if Berg had scored a touchdown. He has constructed a compelling sports movie out of vivid action sequences. It is Rocky on a gridiron. Following the Permian Panthers from August practice to December playoffs, he has edited out the usual longueurs of actual Friday nights: lopsided matches that are over in the first quarter, bombastic halftime shows, desultory plays designed to run out the clock. Instead, we are served a montage of dramatic downs that are to a football junkie what removing everything from a novel but explicit sex is to a porno addict. Berg also deletes much of Bissinger's social critique.

The film begins on August 6, 1988, day one of pre-season practice. The camera tracks across an arid, desolate landscape that no one but a rattlesnake would consider natural habitat. To the young men of Odessa, football is their exit strategy; an athletic scholarship will enable them to leave their dead-end town forever. However, most get stuck there precisely because they invest all their energies in football and when it fails they lack any other resource. Ector County becomes a colony of disappointed jocks who project their pride, envy, and anger onto the latest batch of 17-year-olds. Berg's film focuses on a few of them: Mike Winchell (Black), the morose quarterback dominated by a neurotic mother; Bobbie Miles (Luke), the cocky running back who looks and acts the star; and Don Billingsley (Hedlund), a fumbling tailback who is bullied by his abusive, Scottish father, Charles (McGraw). Coach Gary Gaines (Thorton) is under intense pressure to vanquish every opponent. Yet Gaines is wiser than his peers and knows that winning is neither everything nor the only thing. "Being perfect," he tells his players, "is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down."

Friday Night Lights
Dir. Peter Berg; writ. Berg, David Aaron Cohen, based on the book by Buzz Bissinger; feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Tim McGraw
The most telling moment in the film occurs when Charles Billingsley, who once played on a championship Permian team, sobers up enough to warn his son to seize the day, that life after high school will always lack the grace that he has now, under the Friday Night Lights: "This is the only thing you're ever gonna have." And when a serious knee injury takes Bobbie out of the game, out of the season, and out of contention for a career in the NFL, the swaggering star of the Permian Panthers is suddenly forced to redefine himself. "I can't do nothing but play football," he realizes, now that he can't play football.

Early in the film, a couple of groupies set upon the players, but they soon disappear, and the only grunts we hear are caused by men in shoulder pads attacking other men. The only space inside Permian High School we ever see is the men's locker room. Perhaps the point is that the inside of a classroom is as alien to these football players as it is to the camera, but Berg misses a chance to establish the context within which high school football functions in West Texas. Two thuggish businessmen accost Coach Gaines in a Wal-Mart parking lot and issue veiled threats if he does not bring another state championship to Odessa. Yet, Berg puts everyone else - lawyers, bakers, librarians, clergy, plumbers, pensioners - in shadows while a few momentarily favored young men perform for them all under the celestial illumination of Friday night lights.

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