So here we are on the third day of O&T’s inaugural top-five countdowns, and we’re up to number three on the movie (and music) countdowns. After the comedy brilliance of High Fidelity and The Royal Tenenbaums at numbers 5 and 4 respectively, we move onto a sports-drama movie at number three: 2004’s superb Friday Night Lights.
Now, I’ve been accused of movie homerism before when declaring my unabashed adoration of this film. After all, I’m an avid american football fan and even write a blog about it (shameless plug). However, this is not one of your standard sports movies which are about one of the following four things:
c) A really really shitty rom-com based loosely around a sport of some kind (see Summer Catch, the only film so bad Jessica Biel’s hotness cannot rescue it. Actually, please don’t see it).
d) An animal joins a basketball/baseball/soccer/hockey/volleyball team and guides them to success (bits of Teen Wolf, Air Bud, Air Bud: Golden Receiver, Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (also featuring a raccoon), Air Bud Spikes Back, Air Bud: World Pup – you’re damn skippy those links are all correct).
In fact, Friday Night Lights is a movie as much about the tribulations of adolescence and fame as it is an american football movie, if not more so. The movie is set in Odessa, Texas (as this blog’s front page will tell you), and follows the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers high school football team. For those of you who don’t know, high-school gridiron in Texas is a huge deal, and the players themselves get treated like heroes in their hometowns whether it be Odessa, Abilene, Austin or Dallas.
This movie (based on real events detailed in H.G. Bissinger’s book of the same name) follows new head coach Gary Gaines (an excellent Billy Bob Thornton), starting quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, who you may recognise from Jarhead), star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), not-so-star running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) and defensive captain Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) as they pursue the state championship their town craves. These five are the core of the movie and all portray their roles with admirable authenticity and emotion. Thornton’s Gaines is a confident, trusting coach who pushes his team and himself to the brink as he is scrutinized by the town’s fervent populace – “they’re doin’ too much learnin’ at that school”. Black’s Winchell is a simple, small-town boy trying to get a college degree, Luke’s Miles is a prima donna whose pride comes before a fall, while Hedlund’s Billingsley is a ladies’ man trying to win the affections of his alcoholic ex-player father (country music star Tim McGraw) and Hernandez’s Chavez just plays for the love of the game before he goes off to Harvard.
So far, so stereotypical, right? But Lights is not a movie whose synopsis will ever reward you, it’s one where the content outshines the fairly standard plot. Billy Bob Thornton gives a career-best performance as Gaines, rallying the troops with one of the movies’ greatest inspiring speeches (see bottom of post). Luke’s cocksure Boobie Miles is roguishly arrogant about his own ability, only for his world to crash down when he blows out his knee in the film’s opening third, leading to an emotional breakdown which Luke gives everything to – “I can’t do nothin’ but play football”.
With this fall from grace, the team are under more scrutiny than ever from friend and foe; Black goes for the ‘less is more’ approach with Winchell, not madly changing emotional gears but keeping a cool head, showing Mike’s difficulty in grasping his new role as town hero and villain, which works wonderfully for a character so grounded in Southern morality. Hedlund’s Don is a try-hard who can’t seem to come good, having his hands taped together by his father in a drunken stupor, being asked “Why can’t you hold on to the football?” with increasing venom and malice.
As for the action itself, director Peter Berg smartly doesn’t show lengthy segments of play but rather a series of moments, choosing to focus more on his characters’ own problems – Gaines has ‘for sale’ signs posted in his front garden when the team lose – than the sport itself. And that is what this movie is all about. These young men have success and smalltown fame thrust upon them at age 16 or 17; they can’t escape scrunity in such a confined desert environment and are told “bring home the state championship” by everyone they meet. Thornton emotionally anchors the movie, his every action brought under analysis by the townsfolk, his family threatened by the spectre of his possible firing and his team threatened by local fanaticism and horribly casual racism: Gaines is told to play Boobie Miles more because “that big nigger ain’t gon’ break”.
Add to all of these cracking elements a gorgeous ambient soundtrack by post-rock kings Explosions in the Sky – which somehow captures all the emotion and isolation of this small Texas town in its soaring soundscapes – and you have the equation for the best sports film of all time, and one of the best films of the last decade. Wonderfully acted, directed and realized, this is a moving, affirming account of small-town America and the hopes it clings to. I’ll leave you with the momentous speech given by coach Gaines at half-time in the movie’s final game, one of my favourite bits of dialogue ever. Wonderful movie for those who love the game or those who don’t, Friday Night Lights is a bona fide sporting classic.