There can be no doubt that Friday Night Lights is a remarkably good motion picture, but I have to admit that I have mixed emotions about the film. Maybe that is a good thing because one thing this movie makes almost all of us do is think about ourselves. The majority of us are in there somewhere - maybe you're the dad who puts too much pressure on your kid to be a star athlete, or the coach's wife whose very way of life becomes defined by a simple game made much too complicated by the community, or the rabid fan who lives and dies with your team and never hesitates to berate a coach or player who makes one mistake. Maybe you're the star athlete who saw your dreams die in the form of a serious injury, or the little guy who had to prove your toughness, etc. If you care enough about sports to watch this movie, you're in here somewhere.
Back to my mixed feelings, though. I love football; it's a great sport that lets you have some fun and learn important lessons, such as teamwork, you can put to good use throughout your life - but there is an ugly side to the sport, and Friday Night Lights shows you just about everything that is wrong with this great game. There is nothing fun about being a Panther during the season chronicled in this film. On day one of practice, every kid on every high school team should want a state championship, but none should expect it. Desire brings out the best in you, while expectation sets you up for a fall. In Odessa, Texas, though, the very spirit of the game is betrayed by the adults in the community; not only do they expect a championship, they demand it; these most rabid of fans might know every play in the playbook, but they know nothing about what football (in my opinion) should really be all about. The stress these kids feel to not only win, but pulverize every opponent is much more than any 17-year-old should ever have to bear.
The film basically takes us through the 1988 football season for the Panthers, from the first practice to the final game. That first practice sets an ugly tone for what is to come, and things get even uglier when the team's star running back hurts his knee in the first game. It will not be a perfect season in Odessa. Losing, of course, brings out the worst in some people who were already pretty bad to begin with. The parent of a chronic fumbler, already embarrassed that his son isn't following in his footsteps, pretty much goes off the deep end; the quarterback, living with an ailing mother and desperate for a scholarship that can take him away from this town, gets pushed pretty close to the breaking point, and the star player refuses to believe he is seriously injured because he can't imagine a life without football. What of the coach, the enabler, the molder of young minds? Billy Bob Thornton may be terrific in this film, but I never got inside the head of the coach he played. In the end, I see him as perhaps the worst kind of coach you can have. He's not honest with his team, he doesn't take care of his players, and he puts an obviously injured player back in action without even consulting either of the doctors who examined him. He plays down expectations at times, but it's just an act; all too soon he is frothing at the mouth on the sidelines. Some say he figures things out in the end, realizes that football is just a game, but I disagree. That heartfelt talk with the quarterback: a cruel form of motivation; that half-time speech at the big game: more psychological motivation. It's all about winning for him - that's my interpretation, at least.
The film does have its moments, though. When the injured superstar finally breaks down, it's more than a poignant moment - the film virtually stops right there; it's one of the most powerful scenes I've seen in a long time. Other big moments, though, rubbed me the wrong way. Having your father finally show something better than contempt for you is good, but the reason why it happens in this case sends a message I find quite wrong.
This is definitely a film about high school football. Academics, the very thing that high school is supposed to be all about, is nowhere to be found here - except in the reading problems of a certain star athlete and random comments about more money going to athletics than education. As a full-fledged nerd, and as someone currently involved in education who has to hold his tongue when he sees luxurious athletics buildings erected on a campus desperately needing additional classrooms, I am going to have to stifle myself right here. It does disappoint me a little bit to interpret this film the way I do - for, the way I see it, it ultimately says winning isn't everything - but it is pretty darn close. Whatever its message, though, Friday Night Lights does make you think, and it is a gripping sports-related film, and that is more than enough to make it well worth watching.