Friday Night Lights
136 minutes (PG-13 rating for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action)
Commentary by Kevin Miller
First of all, Friday Night Lights is a great sports movie. It has everything you expect from a film in this genre: an appealing—albeit motley—bunch of players, each with his own hopes and inner conflicts; a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the team to overcome during the upcoming season; a coach who drives them hard but who really has a heart of gold; and tons of bone-crunching action that looks as if it came from a ten-year “best of” sports highlight reel. Films like Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, and Miracle set the stage for this genre, but Friday Night Lights has stolen the show.
But Friday Night Lights is more than just a great sports movie; it is a great movie—period. In fact, I would almost say it is a “perfect” film. You’ll have to watch it to know exactly what I mean by that, but it has everything to do with quality. The acting, the directing, the lighting, the script, the camera that won’t stop moving—I could burn through a phone book of superlatives in every one of these areas. More importantly, however, I loved this film because it does exactly what all movies should do: It makes viewers feel something, perhaps more powerfully than they have ever felt it before. In this case, the overwhelming feeling is one of inspiration. Friday Night Lights compels you to examine your life, to make sure you haven’t lost track of why you are living it, and to refocus on doing your best, on striving toward achieving something extraordinary. Although sports is the central metaphor, Friday Night Lights is really about what it means to be human, the things that get in the way of that pursuit, and how those thing might be overcome.
Hell is a small town in this film, and its name is Odessa, Texas. The only means of salvation are to get out (if you’re smart enough or rich enough) or to make it big playing football. Since few people are able to do either one, most resign themselves to “memories and babies” and spend the rest of their lives reflecting on the glory days while living out their vanquished dreams through the local high school football team. Having failed to achieve anything of consequence themselves, they feel their only hope for significance is for the Permian Panthers to have a winning season. And they will do everything they can to ensure that happens. As a Canadian, I’ve always wondered why small town America is so obsessed with high school football. This film gave me at least a partial answer as to why.
As you can imagine, such expectations put an enormous amount of pressure on the young men who make up this team. For most of the guys, football ceased to be about fun a long time ago. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) wears his role like a death sentence, at one point telling his guys, “You have the responsibility of protecting this team and this school and this town.” Whew. Anyone up for a little two-hand touch? Consequently, the upcoming season isn’t really something to look forward to; it’s just something to endure, to survive. If the Panthers win State, then the pressure is off. If not, well, as one of the team’s boosters tells Gaines, “Things won’t go well for you.” Despite the pressure, it’s obvious that Gaines and his boys really do love the game. If only people would leave them alone long enough so they could relax and enjoy the experience. Who knows? Perhaps they might even become a better team as a result.
The pressure to perform affects each character differently. Gaines is more disappointed than intimidated by the constant harassment and abuse. He seems to be operating from a set of inner convictions that few other characters in this film possess. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is another story. Driven by a football-obsessed mother at home and a fan base that celebrates him one moment and then vilifies him the next, his every look and mannerism tells you he just can’t wait for this show to be over. Then there’s Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the NFL-bound star who blows his chance at the big-time for a shot at small-town glory. Finally, you have Don Billingsly (Garrett Hedlund). He’s so wound up most of the time due to his abusive, former State Champion father that he can’t even hold onto the football. Indeed, whatever dysfunctions are present in Odessa, they all manifest themselves in this football team in one way or another. And it’s all the players can do just to hold things together.
At one point, Coach Gaines senses Winchell is about to crack, so he decides it’s time for a little “man-to-man” with his quarterback. During their conversation, Coach Gaines tells Winchell that he is old enough by now to realize that sometimes life gives you the short end of the stick. The question is: What are we going to do about it? Will we allow it to define the rest of our lives, as some characters in this film do, or are we going to find some way to overcome it? For Gaines, it all comes down to where you find your identity. On what will you base your life? Winning? That didn’t work so well for people like Don Billingsly’s dad. When his team won State, he was the centre of everyone’s hopes and dreams. But when the season ended, he was faced with the glaring question: What do you do when the cheering stops? By the time we meet him, he is still trying to find a satisfactory answer to that problem, one that goes beyond self-medication, that is.
So if not winning, then what? Coach Gaines’s answer sounds frustrating at first: Perfection. By this, however, he does not mean flawlessness. To him, perfection means knowing that you did your best, knowing that there wasn’t one more thing you could have done to achieve your objective. It means having love and joy in your heart for your fellow players and your fellow man. For Gaines, true victory is a victory of character. It’s not whether you win or lose or even how you play the game. It’s about who you become as a result.
Interestingly, Jesus made a similar entreaty to his disciples: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). I’ve always found this verse somewhat frustrating as well. Who can be perfect? Doesn’t the mere attempt just lead to striving and guilt? But when you look at it the way Coach Gaines does, suddenly it makes “perfect” sense. Jesus isn’t saying that life—being human—is about being the best. It’s not even about performing "your own personal best." It’s about allowing the challenges you face to mold you into the best person you can be.
This is accomplished not through striving or guilt but by inviting God to manifest his perfect character through you during such circumstances. “We all dig our own holes,” says Gaines. If so, then perhaps yielding to this sort of perfection is the key to digging our way out.
@ 2004 Kevin Miller.