The faithful reader might remember a piece I posted last fall on Glory Road. Thad H. posted a comment on that piece suggesting that I might enjoy Friday Night Lights, the story of the 1988 Permian “Mojo” Panthers, led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) in their bid for their 6th State Championship.
If you like high school football you’ll love this movie. It takes place in small-town Texas (Odessa, to be exact), where football is a religion and the high school players are hailed as much as NFL stars. Director Peter Berg serves up plenty of bone-bruising hits, body-bending catches, and tackles that have to involve a trampoline just off camera.
Odessa is a blue collar, nearly impoverished town, and there are two kinds of boys: those who might make it out of this town, and those who won’t. Those who might play their hearts out on the field in hopes of getting an NCAA scholarship. Those who won’t play their hearts out on the field because this is all they’ll ever have.
All this creates an intense environment to grow up in. Gaines is threatened with termination if he doesn’t win State, and after one loss, comes home to find “for sale” signs all over his yard. One of his players, Don Billingsly (Gerrett Hedlund), is cursed to be the son of a local football legend, and not have his ability. For several painful scenes, Chuck Billingsly (Tim McGraw) verbally abuses Don and grinds him down for cut-ups on the field. The Panthers win most of their games, but people flagellate them for every mistake. All of this spills onto the field, of course, and Berg makes the action nasty enough that you wonder if this is a sports movie or the teen version of Braveheart. If you enjoy watching young men get their noses smashed and fingers broken, this is the movie for you.
FNLdoes keep the audience involved. I kept backing it up to revisit what happened. The pacing is a little off, though. In a couple of close games, for example, Mojo is getting killed for awhile, Gaines yells a lot, and then suddenly they have some big plays, and end up winning or making it close. The film never builds your anticipation or shows what they changed on the field to get that result. A good sports movie would at least have some kind of inspirational speech that turns things around.
But why complain? This is a movie made for sports nuts, and it makes you feel like you’re watching a real game. There was only one thing about this film I really didn’t like. (Spoiler alert: you might want to skip the next paragraph.)
For the championship game, Mojo goes up against Dallas Carter, a team full of 300-pounders that hardly seem to belong in high school. As a matter of fact, in reality, D.C. was later stripped of its title for playing an ineligible player.
No one expects Mojo to give D.C. any trouble. After being down as much as 21 points, Mojo comes back to close the gap to six, and then falls inches short of a TD at the last second. We then see a lot of slow motion walking across the field. One person walking is Don Billingsly. Chuck comes out of the stands and gives him a hug – which Don actually accepts! WTF?? Now that he’s fought overwhelming odds, covered himself in bruises and sprained every joint in his body, he’s good enough for acknowledgement from the man who’s treated him like dirt all his life, and he takes it?? I wanted him to push dad aside and congratulate his team, or kiss his girlfriend, or something.
A lot of guys love to talk about how football produces the best kind of men, and this movie was made for them. I tend to think the success of ex-players has less to do with qualities the game instills than the fact that having played for the local high school is a golden ticket into the local country club. It gets a little old having to be twice as good and work twice as hard as the guys that played football. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy the drama that comes with sports, however. FNL succeeds at what it sets out to do, and for that I give it