Friday, September 1, 2023

Illuminated by Friday Night Lights

When I started watching the 2004 high school football film, Friday Night Lights, I had no idea who won the big game. Nor was I aware that the film is based on a much-acclaimed non-fiction book by journalist H.G. Bissinger. In his  Friday Night Lights:  A Town, a Team, and a Dream, Bissinger closely observes a scruffy west Texas oil town that pours money and love into the Permian High School Panthers as a way to bring a community together.

 Bissinger’s 1990 book was hardly without controversy. While spending a year in Odessa, Texas, he investigated far more than a local football team. His in-depth look at a town where the football coach out-earned the high school principal revealed rules violations, a cavalier approach to classroom behavior, and off-the-field scandals. There was, in addition, a quiet streak of black-white racism that ran through the nominally integrated school community.

 What I saw in the film version did not focus on race. (I was most aware of racial issues in the lead-up to the climactic game, in which the Panthers take on Dallas Carter High School, an all-Black team of behemoths who not only dwarf our heroes but do not shy away from some late hits and other dirty tricks.) We are naturally drawn to root for the Panthers, depicted as a nice group of kids—both Black and white—who play hard but face their fair share of bad breaks.

 The worst break of all comes at the start of the season, when running-back James “Boobie” Miles suffers a career-ending knee injury. The cocky, gregarious Boobie (Derek Luke) instantly goes from being a star heavily recruited by major college teams to a guy on the sidelines. It’s a heartfelt performance by Luke, who has also played the title role in Denzel Washington’s  Antwone Fisher. Another key team member is hard-working quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), a good guy in permanent thrall to his ailing mother. (Black has since gone on to be featured in the Fast and the Furious franchise.) Perhaps the toughest situation of all is that of Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), whose on-field jitters are made far worse by his abusive father (country music star Tim McGraw in a credibly raw performance), himself once a standout on a championship team.

 Though many of these young supporting players (including Hedlund) have gone on to rise within the industry, the film’s clear star is Oscar-nominated actor Billy Bob Thornton, who plays Gary Grimes, the team’s head coach. By turns feisty and gentle, Grimes understands these boys, their aspirations, and their worries. We also catch a glimpse of his strong, supportive spouse, played by Connie Britton. She would repeat her role in a TV series based on the film, one that ran for five seasons. Never a ratings juggernaut, the series was much admired by critics. It seems a perfect fit for television, since high school athletics imply a revolving cast of characters arriving each fall to be led by coach Grimes and his staff to triumph or to tragedy.

  At its start, the series was written and directed by Peter Berg, the power behind the original film. I don’t know Berg’s career in depth (mostly he seems to be a television guy), but his work on the Friday Night Live film has made me a fan. The screenplay doesn’t seem written so much as it seems lived by its characters. The multiple storylines come together naturally, avoiding any confusion. And the on-field action has a “you are there” quality that conveys the brutal excitement of football. Yay, team!  




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