Throughout these retro reviews of sports movies, I have stated how I am more of a fan of these films than of the sports they celebrate, and I feel the need to bring that up again to talk about Peter Berg’s 2004 Friday Night Lights.
By trade I am a high-school educator who was replaced in the classroom more than a year ago by an athletic coach, and I have lost several subsequent opportunities when coaches were hired to teach instead of me and my Master’s Degree because of the additional needs those candidates fill for both students and administrators.
To fight the temptation to become bitter about these twists of fate, I started watching and reviewing sports movies to better understand what athletes and those who hold the sporting world in such high esteem love so much about competition. I also hoped I could vicariously experience what it is like to win through the stories of fictional athletes when I have lost so many times recently in the professional realm.
(Don’t worry, my review of the Rocky movies is coming eventually folks. I just gotta get an actual win under my widening belt before I can really feel like championing an underdog contender with the passion those stories deserve).
Having watched Friday Night Lights without much advance knowledge of the celebrated TV series nor H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 non-fiction novel on which both are based, I think I finally get it.
Peter Berg’s ode to high school football comes not to praise the winners, but to help anyone who would rather not shiver in the stands on cold evenings learn more about what happens on and off the field.
Where Varsity Blues mined much of the same small-town Texas territory as this story of a team hoping for a winning season by showcasing the comedy and action involved, Friday Night Lights goes more for the heart and drama of the struggle. And it’s worth every second.
The characters here are much more nuanced and realistic, though there are a few stereotypes at play and the narrative focuses more on what playing the game does to the people under the titular stadium glare before, during, and after the final whistle is blown.
Billy Bob Thornton humanizes his coach character beyond the caricature we already know, the rest of the cast does the same. He is wisely paired with poor redneck quarterback Lucas Black (a duo which worked so well in 1996’s Sling Blade), who is dealing with a mother suffering from unspecified mental illness, but there are also subplots involving an overbearing alcoholic former player (country crooner Tim McGraw) putting pressure on his son as well as a charismatic black player hoping to escape his poor rural surroundings for a life in the NFL.
None of this seems tacked on to the larger story of a fickle community that lives and dies by the scoreboard each Friday night (they even plant reality signs in the front yard of the coach when he loses the first game of the 1988 season), and the stakes only get greater when the team advances to the state playoffs at the Houston Astrodome.
Some research on the book that chronicled the actual 1988 Periman Panthers and the aftermath of their quest for greatness reveals there was some racial tension. The film does explore some of that, but to its credit it does so without ever becoming too heavy-handed or detracting from an otherwise engrossing story.
While Thornton’s coach is strictly there for athletics and there is very little mention of what the players accomplish in the classroom, I must admit I have a newfound respect for what both these sportsball players and coaches deal with in terms of what happens between the first preseason practice of the year and when the jerseys are packed away.
If you need some insight, just watch this speech Thornton delivers to his players in their time of need and try not to be inspired.
I had the same feeling when my students asked why I was not coming back to their school the next semester. While my time with them was far from perfect, I knew I had done everything I could to teach them not just English but about what it means not to quit even when you know the odds are not in your favor.
I may not be a coach now (or ever), but Friday Night Lights allowed me to appreciate what it is like to do your best and still hold your head high when you come off the field.
I needed that reminder. If you do too, watch this film. It may even get you to attend a Friday night playoff game and root for everyone who suited up regardless of what the scoreboard indicates at the end of play.
If the TV show is anything like this feature film, I think some binge-watching is in my future.
Friday Night Lights
Directed by Peter Berg
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action
Celluloid Scoreboard: A+; this is what high school sports is all about, even if you are not an athletic supporter.