After his 1974 team was defeated in overtime in the national semifinals, the legendary UCLA coach John Wooden was berated by a "supporter" for having "let everybody down." Wooden's teams had won the seven previous national championships and nine in 10 years. Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights looks at another coach whose "supporters" deem anything less a championship a failure. The picture certainly has its virtues, and I wouldn't doubt that sports-movie fans would want to see this one. But it's not Rocky, it's not even Rudy, and it's certainly not Breaking Away.
Adapted for the screen by Berg and David Aaron Cohen from H.G. Bissinger's non-fiction book, Friday Night Lights is the story of the 1988 football season at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. (Note: Berg is a cousin of Bissinger.) It focuses on new coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and six of his players: undergraduate, substitute running back Chris Gomer (Lee Thompson Young) and five starting seniors, quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), fullback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), linebacker Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) and defensive lineman Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson). Gaines is a winner and family man and, to too great an extent, a typical football coach. The best coaches know which players to slap on the back and which to kick in the pants. Gaines indiscriminately uses both approaches on all his players, and the film never convinces us that his coaching is critical to this team's success.
The narrative tries to give complicated development to each of its student characters. Mike is withdrawn and pessimistic because he comes from a single-parent home where his neurotic mom is obsessed with his earning a college football scholarship. Don has an alcoholic father (Tim McGraw), a former Permian gridiron star himself, who thinks his son lacks the proper grit to succeed at football. Boobie lives with his doting uncle (Grover Coulson) but has nonetheless turned into an obnoxious loudmouth. Brian is brainy and headed for Harvard. Ivory is as taciturn as Boobie is loquacious. And young Chris is so green he at one point tries to enter a game without remembering to bring his helmet.
In significant part, though, the film stands as an indictment of a host of adults who put far too much of their energy in being "supporters" of local high school football, who even ludicrously complain that the school is requiring too much academics. From the outset, we learn that Permian has won more than its share of state championships. But we also learn that the 1988 team is small and will have to succeed, if it can, with its speed. That Texas is a huge state, that football is a religion practiced in every big city and every small town, that no one school can expect to win a championship every year and that the 1988 team has serious limitations are matters of absolutely no concern whatsoever to Permian's boosters. The coach is supposed to deliver, and the boys are supposed to bring home another trophy. And if the championship isn't won, then the coach is a failure and the team members are weaklings. You want to sneer at the bunch of them: Get a life!
The season begins with high hopes. Boobie is a dazzling running back already fielding college scholarship offers from the best football schools in the nation. But then the unthinkable happens when Boobie goes down with a knee injury. Mike's passing game has to become a more central element. Don has to overcome his habit of fumbling. Chris has to come off the bench to fill in for Boobie. And the defense has got to keep opponents off the scoreboard. These substitute strategies take a while to mesh, and Permian tastes defeat, a circumstance so intolerable that the townspeople reforest Gary's front lawn with "For Sale" signs.
Friday Night Lights tinkers with but doesn't stray far from the standard sports-flick formula as adversity is met with resolve and we march toward that seasoning-ending game that will inevitably come down to the last play. But this isn't really a complaint. Why fool with a formula that works? I like the work the script does with Gary's character. He's excoriated by his "fans" for playing Boobie in a Permian rout, but what happens isn't the coach's fault at all. Then later, he commits a coaching sin that will keep him a while in purgatory. I can also credit the film for capturing the pageantry and thrill of sport in general and football in particular.
Unfortunately, the film interjects an element of racial rivalry at the very end that should have been avoided. If essential, it should have been developed throughout. As it was executed, I was made very uncomfortable. Worse, I think the film quits on what it pretends is its greatest strength. The resolution of the tension between Don and his dad is utterly unconvincing. And we just don't get adequate depth on or telling insight into anybody.