While Friday Night Lights is an outstanding film, it fails to achieve its true potential.
Based on the novel of the same name by HG Bissinger, Friday Night Lights is a superior coming-of-age film based around one town’s obsession with its high-school football team.
Bissinger, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, quit his day job to research the novel, moving to Odessa, Texas to witness first-hand the extraordinary pressure that the town placed on its legendary team, the Permian Panthers.
The factual basis of the book is artfully reflected in the film’s grainy, documentary feel, Peter Berg’s subtle direction, and generally understated performances. Most notable is Billy Bob Thornton as the Panther’s dignified coach, Gary Gaines, whose ambitions for the team are tempered by his experience of the darker side of competitive sport, from constant criticism to veiled threats.
While the film has noble intentions, many of the elements of a generic jock-flick are present. The most obvious are in the central thrust of the film: the team of underdogs working their way to a final match where they face a mighty, de-personalised, opponent – who don’t play by the rules. In the final, decisive, play one of our heroes says "I love you guys".
However, these clichés belie what is actually a study of human relationships warped by the desire for, or downside of, success. While the main characters might appear clichéd: the brainy kid who’ll go to college regardless of his football; the cocky prodigy; the reserved quarterback who only wants a scholarship to satisfy his ill mother, they each portray differing forms of exploitation and pressure.
These pressures are presented relatively dispassionately as the inevitable flip side of fame and opportunity; the boys’ sacrifice of their youth being necessary for the pride and advancement of family and community. One character is constantly mocked and humiliated in front of his peers by his father, whose own success as a player has only resulted in bitterness and a drink problem. Even this shocking abuse is ultimately treated with sympathy, as motivated not just by his father’s problems, but his son’s best interests.
Bissinger seems to have consciously developed the parallels between the story and Greek tragedy: The hero destroyed by hubris; the battle; sacrifice for the community; and mortals achieving immortality through heroism. He has stated: "You gotta think of this as kids going off to war... young, noble kids going off to an early death, metaphorically".
In some ways it’s typical Oscar-fishing bullshit: try your best; be loyal to your friends. However, this is qualified by another, more subversive theme. Coach Gaines, who encourages the team to 'be perfect', elsewhere states: "Ain’t much difference between winning and losing except how the outside world treats you... We all dig our own holes"
This edgy message, that victory is transitory and meaningless, doesn’t sit comfortably with the suggested celebration of self-sacrifice. The ambiguity is deliberate, and would be one of the film’s strengths, but the final scenes compromise this relativism in favour of attempting some moral resolution. Hence, while Friday Night Lights is an outstanding film, it fails to achieve its true potential. Coach Gaines wouldn’t be happy.
For the zillions of sports fans and sociologists who have read the book, and any remaining American football fanatics in the country, it’s unmissable.
Beautifully shot, with bone-crunchingly authentic action and tear-jerking intensity it’s a thrilling film, that takes you from pain to, er, more pain, with ease.
Despite its faults, it’s still a fine film, and should be caught in the cinema to experience the authentic blood-and-sweat recreation of the stadium: the noise; the action; and those lights.