erasing clouds

Friday Night Lights Almost Gets It Right

review by matthew webber

The best sports movies, like sports themselves, are not really about sports. They're not about games, or statistics, or feats, but rather the people who play or watch these games, the people who love and need and find meaning in sports. There are moments in any sports fan's existence when sports is no longer a metaphor for life, but rather life itself or something more important, because, in sports' most transcendent moments, the life outside the TV or the sidelines is forgotten.

A good game, like a good movie, is vicarious living, through players or characters more real than ourselves, more beautiful, more flawed, and closer to attaining a moment of human perfection. The trick of a sports movie is connecting these moments, finding the story that is there beyond the box score. Of course, a good sports film needs action shots as well, the catches and throws and hits of our dreams, with better cinematography and editing than SportsCenter highlights.

Field of Dreams is about all these dreams, of course, and the ghosts of our past, fathers and sons, heaven among the cornfields. Rocky is about poverty, racial conflict, love. Friday Night Lights, the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger about the 1988 season of the Odessa, Texas, Permian Panthers football team, is about sociology: the need of this dying oil town to assert its collective identity, to find pride in a tradition of being great at anything, to live through these high school kids upon whom all dreams (there's that word again) are thrust.

Fathers reminisce about their own gridiron glory. Little boys grow up worshipping their hometown football heroes. Teachers favor athletes with grades they don't deserve, because wins matter more to the school than integrity. Tax dollars support new stadiums, not books. Friday nights completely shut down the town, as seemingly everyone is "gone to the game," as signs on businesses proudly proclaim.

Contrary to Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, in which professional football players are gladiators, the 17- and 18-year-old players in Friday Night Lights are gods. The irony is readers know something these gods do not: When the season ends, when the lights go out, these gods will never glow so brightly again. At 18 years old, these boys have already peaked, their meaningfulness sapped, their destiny behind them.

The metaphor, like that of Varsity Blues, is football as religion, complete with its rituals and saints and devils: cheerleaders who tempt, coaches who don't win.

How can a two-hour movie capture this passion play?

It can't. But the Brian Grazer-produced film can hint at the sociology inherent in every touchdown. Director Peter Berg, Bissinger's cousin, takes snapshots of all the players and the coach and files them in this yearbook of a movie: the serious quarterback (played by Sling Blade's Lucas Black) whose ticket out of Texas is football, the fumbling son (Garrett Hedlund) whose father (country singer Tim McGraw, in a strong debut) was a legend, the cocky superstar (Antwone Fisher's Derek Luke) whose shattered knee shatters hope, the coach (Billy Bob Thornton) who is not allowed to lose, and the Dazed and Confused-like former stars. Each actor in this ensemble cast gets monologues and moments to shine.

And the on-field action - which increasingly dominates the film, the gift and the curse of any sports movie - is perhaps the closest yet to real-life NFL films. There's poetry in every play; every bloody nose, broken finger, and accompanying crunch resonates.

The plot is sports-movie standard, as the season progresses towards a Big Game at the end. One hopes, as one watches, the players learn the truth before it's too late: There's more to life than football; your life can be more than one season of memories. Every sports movie is really about redemption - will these players, these boys, find theirs among everyone else's?

Those who have already read the book will think the adaptation is either skimpy or one of the greatest sports movies ever made, depending on how much work this viewer is willing to do. Bissinger's themes are there, albeit in flashes. Those who are new to the text will love the game scenes - again, perhaps some of the best of all time.

This football fields in Friday Night Lights are crowded with thousands of dreams - and fears. Those who have set aside their own dreams - whether for one game or season or for life - to dream of the perfect play will know this story well. Afterwards, when the lights of the theater go up, comes a viewer's redemption: that of being moved by a powerful work of art.

Issue 27, October 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds