Tears in the Astroturf: Friday Night Lights (2004)
This feel-good movie doesn't
A lot of reviewers have gotten the pom-poms out for Friday Night Lights. The ads use Larry King, who bleats, "One of the Greatest Sports Movies Ever Made." Richard Roeper waves his thumb and declares that he once played under Friday night lights, and the movie gets it right. And Terry Lawson, of the Detroit Free Press, says the movie "honors the book."
Please, Terry, less speed reading. Read for content.
If anything, the movie dishonors H. G. "Buzz" Bissinger's brilliant study of the 1988 Permian High School team in Odessa, Texas. Bissinger took a leave from the Philadelphia Inquirer and moved his family to Odessa, where he lived experiencing firsthand the Permian Panthers and their milieu. In his book, he gave that world an analytical Eastern perspective that infuriated many of the Texas readers.
The book was fourteen years evolving into a movie. Finally the screenplay, written by Peter Berg and David Aaron Cohen, was made into a movie directed by Berg. There are many entertainment minefields portrayed in the book — racism, failure, futility, and hypocrisy. How many downers can an audience take? The filmmakers avoided that problem; at almost every moment of truth, they backed down. The saddest thing is that they didn't have to. Friday Night Lights was a great movie waiting to be made; it didn't happen.
One might not ask anything other than that the movie be what it pretends to be — authentic, human, true. It isn't. The guts, no, the soul, has been cut out of the book. The book dealt with politics and social values. One can accept the politics being truncated, but not the social criticism, not the human dimensions.
The language is diluted. Key words — especially the racial slurs — disappear. But even more important, the events are contrived and manipulated. Boobie Miles, the African-American star running back, of course, is the character most emasculated by the filmmakers.
In the book and actual life, Boobie was badly injured in a scrimmage game. Finally Boobie quit the team, with the coaches' disdain in his wake. In the movie Saint Boobie on crutches meets the team bus to ride with his teammates to the state finals (by the way, Permian was beaten in the semi-finals, but that wouldn't have been dramatic enough). The movie concocts a brotherhood that didn't exist. It's one of those scenes that are bicycle-pumped with phony air for supposed dramatic effect.
One would never know from the movie that in actuality in the big game, quarterback Mike Winchell was four for twenty-four in passing for fifty-seven yards and an interception. Those stats would never fit into this film; they only fit into real life.
There are many factual changes such as the big game being played in the Astrodome, instead of Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas in Austin, where it was actually played.
Facts can be changed, although the filmmakers throw out way too many salient facts. But the biggest distortion is the attitude. In the book, Bissinger was after the truth. In the movie, Berg, et al. are after entertainment, and if facts get in the way, sack them. What dominates is equivocation, which seems to be Berg's modus operandi. He may want to be incisive, but he really can't be. He has to sell the movie.
A significant question in relation to the movie is, can a film be true and entertaining at the same time? It's relevant that Brian Grazer, Ron Howard's partner, is the producer of Friday Night Lights. Grazer also produced A Beautiful Mind, which — except for an occasional lapse — married truth and entertainment effectively. Berg is no Ron Howard, but Howard would not be the right director for Friday Night Lights either. It demands a director who favors grit over sentimentality. Boobie Miles, Mike Winchell, and Gary Gaines deserve that.
Director Peter Berg is all jittery camera. His football sequences often are potent, but that's not enough. The acting is uneven. That Billy Bob Thornton (Coach Gaines) and Lucas Black (Winchell) were together in Sling Blade is intriguing. Obviously both have grown. On the other hand, the Boosters could be from twenty other movies, they're so generic and obvious. And Derek Luke's Boobie Miles is more Michael Irvin than a seventeen-year-old kid.
If Hoosiers hadn't been made, Friday Night Lights might be different. But what the filmmakers of Friday Night Lights don't keep in mind is that Hoosiers always went for humanity — and thus perfectly married truth and entertainment.
Ironically, perhaps Friday Night Lights's best emotional scene is an invented moment between father and son (Charlie and Don Billingsley) when after the big game, the father gives his son his own championship ring. (The father of course is an alcoholic. One needs an alcoholic father in a sports movie.) Tim McGraw, the country singer and son of the late Tug McGraw, is fine as Charlie Billingsley, the alcoholic, abusive father, but he's no Dennis Hopper.
There is a silly scene in which the father at night throws his ring out of a car window, and the son searches for it in the dark. A needle in a haystack, a ring in the sagebrush. What a script!
The movie emphasizes the relationship between the Billingsley father and son, which was minor in the book. At the end of the movie, as words on the screen tell what happened to the major characters, we learn that father and son developed a good relationship. The book's epilogue says the opposite.
There is no photo of the actual Permian Panther team at the end of the movie, which may be telling.
The tradition of iconoclastic football movies is slim — David Miller's Saturday's Hero (1951), which is difficult to find, All The Right Moves, North Dallas Forty, and a few others, but Friday Night Lights doesn't join them. It's one of the best examples (along with The Natural) of a sports movie that leaves its book trampled in the astroturf.
Friday Night Lights is a feel-good movie, but it's not real. It's a hard-hitting Hallmark greeting card. It's no wonder it appealed to Larry King — it's safe, easy, conventional, and feigns incisiveness.
A lot of reviewers are joining Larry in the cheerleading corps, giving enthusiastic, rote applause to Friday Night Lights. Give them all a Permian Booster Club Jacket.