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‘Friday Night Lights’, like all great sports-dramas, captures the unique connection between a coach and their team. There are countless cheesy (mostly American) sports films that got lost in their own egos, whilst clawing with their fingernails to mimic Al Pacino’s iconic ‘Any Given Sunday’ (find some great similar films here).
We’ve all seen the high-intensity warm up montage that precedes a big game, as well as the tense changing room psych-up, which pervades the cinematic halls of fame. Knowing how popular these beats are, directors and writers have often returned to sport, ardent to pull some electrifying ‘go get ’em’ reaction from the audience.
Many have tried, but few have portrayed sport with honesty and unexaggerated virility. ‘Friday Night Lights’ is, in my opinion, one of those exceptional glimpses into high-performing sports teams at the prime of their playing careers. It’s just a game, right; well that much is true, but unless it matters to you you’ll never be worth anything on the field. What we see in Friday Night Lights is the nigh-familial reality that if you don’t suffer out there it only means your teammates with have pick up the slack and do it for you.
‘Be perfect’ is what Coach Gaines repeatedly asks of his team. Ultimately it transpires that he attributes such perfection to those who can look their teammates in the eye and know that there wasn’t one more thing they could’ve given them. It’s that willingness to be honest and fearless that wins through in this film, which is less about pride and glory and more focused on the human side of sport.
Even if, like me, you’re not an American football fan this film is still fascinating. For the most part we track the 1988 Permian Panthers’ unlikely run to the state championship. The script was based on a book written by H.G. Bissinger and the original material is preserved through well-written characters and close-up detail that takes us into the heart of the team. We do also get a glimpse of Odessa itself, although it’s not nearly as in-depth as the exploration of socioeconomic disparity, racism and poverty that nicely framed the sport in the book.
As I mentioned, Odessa is the setting; a small-town isolated on the arid American plains of Texas. In such a place football is considered by many to be the very zenith of importance. Thereby that period of youth, when the players are at the peak of their abilities, is something the older former Panthers, tangled in the recurring banality of working life, long to reclaim. It’s like a drug, a chemical imbibed through the roar of the crowd and the shine of the spotlights.
It’s interesting to see how a town with so little can develop such a vice-like hold on something so seemingly small and trivial as high school football. So intense is the furore surrounding each game that Coach Gaines winds up being crucified to the team. Soon events off the gridiron begin to directly affect him and even start to threaten his safety. However the most consequential outrage occurs when his star running back James ‘Boobie’ Miles (Derek Luke) tears his ACL and misses the playoffs.
In what is arguably the films most heart-breaking moment we see the cocky Boobie Miles swaggering out of the locker room, having packed up his things. He seems composed, but then he gets into the car with his uncle and shrinks into the devastating reality of his situation – ‘What am I gonna do if I can’t play football,’ he sobs, reminding the audience that for many of the young players, football is more than just a career path, it’s a fragile dream; one that could so easily be stolen by a slip or a trip at the wrong moment.
Boobie Miles is an example of those athletic kids who abandon their studies entirely for the glory of the field. It’s that all or nothing attitude that often sets them apart in the game, but when the God-feeling fades its most likely that they’ll land squarely in the grubby, calloused palm of low-paid labour. The other two players who receive the limelight are quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and fullback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund).
Billingsley is caught in a turbulent relationship with his alcoholic father, a former football star and state champion who gets his thrills vicariously through his son. The Coach is a father to all these young men and far from being an inarticulate hard-man, he’s actually a sensitive mentor, capable of imparting wisdom, whilst also imbuing his team with an indomitable inner strength.
‘Friday Night Lights’ offers that rare combination of realistic sports action and convincing drama. It stands out in a genre saturated with crude caricatures and over-zealous masculine adoration. The heart is there, reinforced by the gentle patience of Billy Bob Thornton, and the pressure-laden action never falters, backed by the rising strings and pounding crescendos of post-rock giants Explosions in the Sky.
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