Friday Night Lights is a 2004 movie directed by Peter Berg, produced by Brian Grazer, and written by Berg and David Aaron Cohen. It’s based on a non-fiction book of the same name, by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. It stars Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Britton, Lucas Black, and Derek Luke.
The entire movie takes place in the small, rural town of Odessa, Texas. It chronicles a highly anticipated season of the town’s high school football team – the Permian Panthers, which the townsfolk follow with a reverence more devout than some religious cults. Thornton plays the coach and Britton, his wife. Black plays Mike Winchell, the team’s quarterback, and Luke, James “Booby” Miles, the team’s transcendent talent who seems to be a gift from God to the game of football and the town of Odessa. Tim McGraw also takes a startlingly good turn as the asshole father of one of the boys on the team.
This movie takes you a world many of us try our best not to think about much – piss-poor, provincial, rural America (the kind of community the New York Times recently reported as increasingly likely to send its residents to prison). The landscape is harsh, dry, and doesn’t easily accommodate life. We see a lot of that landscape and the color scheme of the whole movie looks washed out, further adding to the bleakness on screen. The music is much like the music in the popular NBC show – a weird but chill-inducing blend of instrumental, Christian, and soft electric rock.
Unlike, say, Remember the Titans, which is about difficulty no doubt, but is obviously going for heart-filling inspiration (aka, a Disney movie), this sports movie purports to show a grittier reality. Not just the harshness of being a high school kid (as if that isn’t enough) expected both to deliver and receive physical poundings, but also the undeniable truth that life in this part of America seemingly offers them little chance at joy beyond a state championship. This brutal fact is established well and brought to a head in a chilling scene with McGraw and his son. Throughout the story, McGraw verbally and sometimes physically berates his decent, skilled, and hardworking son, demanding absurd things. Then one morning, after knocking him around while drunk the night before, McGraw soberly tells to his son that his own life has been a sad affair, that the only thing that really meant something was winning state during his high school years. He pushes his son so hard because he wants to make sure he feels the same joy while he can, and so that he’ll have that memory to cherish for the rest of his life.
Booby Miles is a beautiful football player and a beautiful kid with a light-up-the-room smile and cocky yet winning attitude. In his best scene, while the team is lifting he engages gloomy Winchell (the quarterback) with a long tirade about how Winchell will be invited to come visit him in the future when he’s in the NFL and get a piece of his extravagant, wonderful lifestyle for a few days. After going on and on for a while, he finally gets Winchell to smile, exclaiming with delight at his ultimate victory. Needless to say, Booby’s fall is foreseeable, but that makes it no less heartbreaking.
The quarterback Winchell is, as stated above, gloomy. Not because he’s dumb or a jerk or anything like that, but because he understands, perhaps better than anyone, that football is so insignificant compared to what they’re really up against. His solemn, stoic face is wonderfully captured in many close-ups, telling as much of a story as anything else.
Thornton does very well as the coach, a good football man who’s too wise for this town or most of his kids to understand. He’s got less job security than many high-level Division I college coaches, but a good family and rock-solid understanding (through experience no doubt) of the fact that winning or losing doesn’t change you one bit, just how the outside world sees you (his words). That’s part of a larger peace he’s made with the world than high school football players in this situation are going to understand, but some of his ethos gets absorbed, most dramatically through his speech at the state championship game. He doesn’t talk much then about winning and losing. Winning and losing, it turns out, are feeble imitations of glory when compared to the love of the men beside you for you and the love you have for them. Winning and losing are a kind of temporary aura around you; they flow in and out, contingent upon time and place. But love, comradeship, brotherhood – those are the experiences that become the memories you hold in your hearts forever; they help form the core of a decent life.
I thought of the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, when watching this movie. I really didn’t expect that to happen going in, but hey, the unexpected is why we do anything at all right? Anyway, at the end of that novel the hero is speaking with a group of boys, who are mourning the death of one of their classmates. Though he makes no attempt to diminish the sadness they all feel, the hero tells them that:
You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation.
When you get down to it, that kind of thing is all the players on the team were really going for. And it’s no small thing, though many among us, particularly those of us who make the mistake of dismissing sports, might not see it at first glance with everything else that’s swirling around them. But it turns out they knew as much, if not more, than all the rest of us.