"Doesn’t Quite Measure Up"
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, based on an award-winning sports book, focuses on the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers in Odessa, located in West Texas. Led by a wonderful performance by Billy Bob Thornton as the team’s honorable but tough coach, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS picks up steam in the second half, but the movie’s redemptive, implied Christian ending barely overcomes its Romantic worldview of sports and family life.
One of humanist comic George Carlin’s most funny, cleanest bits is his riff on the differences between football and baseball. The difference is epitomized by the name of the places where each sport is played. Thus, football is played in a “STADIUM!”, but baseball is played in a park.
One of the funniest moments in the new serious sports drama about high school football, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, is when the school officials of the two football teams vying for the Texas State Championship debate where to hold the final game. Neither team wants to play in the other team’s stadium, because their fans wouldn’t like it. Then, the coach of one of the teams proposes that they play at a neutral site. How about the Astrodome, he suggests, and both sides agree. Of course, the Astrodome is a symbol of the new technological age that America represented in the 1960s, when modern football came of age as a truly national sport.
Like the award-winning book by H. G. Bissinger on which it’s based, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS focuses on the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers in Odessa, located in West Texas. Everyone in the town expects the team to win the Texas State Championship for the sixth time, mostly because its star running back, Boobie Miles, is one of the hottest professional prospects in the United States. An unexpected accident, however, changes the fortunes of Boobie and the team, which is led by its intense, clean-spoken coach, Gary Gaines, played by Billy Bob Thornton.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS begins by focusing on the personalities of Boobie and several other players. For example, Boobie is very cocky about being the best player on the team. The quarterback, Mike Winchell, is quiet and withdrawn. He’s not sure if he likes all the adulation and expectation that the whole town, including his widowed, sickly mother, places on the team, and on him. Finally, one of the team’s running backs and pass receivers, Don Billingsley, suffers from a demanding, hard-drinking father. Don’s father is re-living the past through his son, because years ago, he was on a Panthers team which won one of the school’s five state championships. Don doesn’t have quite the skills of his father, however. He fumbles too much, a failure that Don’s father is eager to angrily berate.
Holding these disparate characters together is Coach Gary Gaines. Gaines is a man under intense pressure, because the town is paying him $50,000 to coach their team to victory and because the town paid $6 million in 1982 to erect their high school football stadium, the largest high school stadium in the U.S. at the time. Despite the pressure, Gaines is a man of honor and integrity who refuses to curse at his players. That doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t give the players an angry tongue lashing when they deserve it.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS doesn’t completely succeed in its efforts to depict the town of Odessa’s dedication to the Friday night games of its high school football team. The intoxicating intensity of those nights, described in the movie’s press notes and in Bissinger’s book, doesn’t quite come together. This is probably due to the disjointed shooting and editing style in the movie, which is confusing at first and places a distance between the audience and the characters. There is also some teenage drinking and brief sexual content in the movie’s beginning. The beginning also contains some disturbing arguments between Don Billingsley and his demanding, seething father. Once the story’s first major twist occurs, however, the movie picks up intensity to provide more compelling drama. It also becomes more theologically positive. (A movie’s theology has a tremendous affect on its story, characters, tone, style, and audience appeal.)
Even so, the first half of the movie has a Romantic premise where the coach and the players are nearly defeated by the Romantic breakdown in priorities and perspective in Odessa. In effect, the town’s football mania has corrupted the players’ parents and the town’s citizens. Consequently, both the players and the coach are suffering. The movie’s redemptive, implied Christian ending barely overcomes this Romantic worldview of sports and family life.
Despite these problems, Billy Bob Thornton’s wonderful performance as Coach Gary Gaines gives the movie plenty of depth and appeal. This character is also written well. Thornton gives a great delivery of the coach’s final redemptive speech to the team at the state championships in the Astrodome. Immediately after the speech, the movie cuts to the two teams praying the Lord’s Prayer. The implied Christian meaning in this short sequence helps give the movie a strong uplifting ending. The rest of the movie could have used a lot more of this Christian-friendly content.
Thus, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS doesn’t quite measure up to such recent sports classics as HOOSIERS, REMEMBER THE TITANS and MIRACLE. The Christian premise in the second half of the movie is nearly overwhelmed by the Romantic tone in the beginning. The movie also contains plenty of foul language, especially in the first half. For example, there are more than 25 obscenities and six strong profanities, but no “f” words.
(Ro, C, BB, LLL, VV, S, N, AA, D, M) Romantic worldview where a West Texas town’s obsession with high school football corrupts its families and some of its teenage players, with a redemptive ending with Christian implications at crucial points, the reconciliation between a father and his son, and important prayers reciting the Lord’s Prayer, as well as some solid moral elements, especially the redemptive moral character of the football coach; about 27 obscenities, six strong profanities, three light profanities some strong football violence including harsh tackles, crack heard as one player’s knee suffers career-ending injury, mouth bleeding, and player kicks helmet into another player’s chin which bleeds; teenagers kiss passionately and partially undress to start fornicating but are interrupted by boy’s angry father, implied fornication between one teenage couple and teenagers talk about “getting laid” at party; upper male nudity and teenage girl’s bare back shown; alcohol use, drunken father and underage drinking; and, brief smoking.
GENRE: Sports Drama
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, based on an award-winning sports book, focuses on the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers in Odessa, located in West Texas. Everyone in the town expects the team to win the Texas State Championship for the sixth time, mostly because its star running back, Boobie Miles, is one of the hottest professional football prospects in the United States. An unexpected accident, however, changes the fortunes of Boobie and the team, which is led by its intense, clean-spoken coach, Gary Gaines. Besides Boobie, the movie also focuses on several other players trying to overcome other troubles.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS gets off to a slow, somewhat confusing and unappealing start. Once the story’s first major twist story occurs, however, the movie picks up intensity and provides more compelling drama. It also becomes more theologically positive. Billy Bob Thornton’s wonderful redemptive performance as the coach helps a lot. Even so, the movie’s redemptive, implied Christian ending barely overcomes its Romantic worldview of sports and family life. Also, the movie’s beginning contains teenage drinking, brief sexual content and disturbing scenes between one father and his son. The movie also contains plenty of foul language.