FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
** (out of 5)
October 8, 2004
Billy Bob Thornton as COACH GARY GAINES
Lucas Black as MIKE WINCHELL
Garrett Hedlund as DON BILLINGSLEY
Derek Luke as BOOBIE MILES
Jay Hernandez as BRIAN CHAVEZ
Lee Jackson as IVORY CHRISTIAN
Lee Thompson Young as CHRIS COMERE
Tim McGraw as CHARLES BILLINGSLEY
Directed by: Peter Berg
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
“Friday Night Lights” tells the true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers from Odessa, Texas, and their rise to the state championships. It’s a button-pusher, as my friend said to me when we left the theater. Everything’s there – the team against all odds, the struggles between father and son, the precarious situation the team is in when a knee injury takes out their star player. So, fans of the game are going to like this film.
But not me. I’ve never been much of a football fan. Sure, I watch my Cleveland Browns when they’re doing well (which means that sadly, I haven’t watched them in some time). But even though I live in Columbus, Ohio, I can’t stand Ohio State Football. The Central Ohio football fever hasn’t meant much more to me over the years than heavy traffic on Saturdays in the fall and really, really annoying sports personalities spraying the airwaves with testosterone.
I also never played high school football. (I was a band geek.) I played my fair share of team sports, so I understand the whole “there’s no I in TEAM” concept. But football just isn’t in my blood… which is part of the reason why I wasn’t all that fond of “Friday Night Lights.”
But my issues with the film go beyond my general indifference to football. There was an overall shallowness to the characters – from the players right up to the coach. Even the town (which is undoubtedly a character in the film as well) is exceedingly shallow.
Of course, I like a good sports movie as much as the next guy. In fact, I thought that “Miracle” is one of the best films of the year. But I don’t think “Friday Night Lights” fell in the same category. Much of this hinges upon the fact that the characters didn’t grow. They just wallowed in their self pity – or basked in their own arrogance – depending on how well they were doing in the season.
In a good sports film, the coach is usually the key. He’s either the enemy everyone is working against (as in “Varsity Blues”), or he’s the inspiration to the rest of the team (as in “Remember the Titans”). And while Billy Bob Thornton did a decent acting job, he didn’t have much to work with. He really did nothing to inspire the team. Oh sure, he made more than his fair share of half-time speeches, but in the end it was all just a bunch of yelling.
I hope this is not misconstrued as negative comments about the real people, because I don’t know anything about them. My problems were with how the story was structured for the screen. For example, the coach made decisions that weren’t in the best interest of the team – like taking the word of an injured player that he was well enough to play. In another instance, an irate father (Tim McGraw) runs out of the stands during the opening day of practice to yell at his son who just fumbled the ball… in practice, no less! And the coach does nothing. Now, what sort of leadership is that?
And speaking of this irate father, he’s such a stereotypical strawman as the womanizing, alcoholic loser whose greatest years of his life was when he played football for the Panthers. Tim McGraw overacts in this part making the character so sleazy and despicable that even when he has his predicted mea culpa, I still was hoping he would get hit in the head by a random meteorite.
This film almost made me throw up… literally. It wasn’t the story or the characters. (Give me more credit, folks. I’ve choked down far worse films this year.) It was the camera work. When will cinematographers learn that jerkiness doesn’t necessarily give you style? The first third of the film had such a wobbly, frenetic look that I had flashbacks to “The Blair Witch Project.”
Now, if you like to watch extreme sports footage with hard-hitting football, this will get your blood flowing. And most likely if you’re a fan of high school football – or better yet a current or former member of a high school team – you’ll probably love this film. But I can’t help looking at this as an indictment of the high school football system, leaving us with the message that it’s okay to hate your kids if they fumble the football, make a kid ruin his career by letting him play with a busted knee, embody every awful stereotype of football players and hold up sleazebags as heroes simply because they can play ball.