Friday Night Lights

The same love of a tough game . . .

For those of us who endure the suffocating zeal of Ohio State football fans or hear about the football obsession of small-town Massillon, Ohio, "Friday Night Lights" is more of the same. Odessa, Texas, has little else but high school football given the poor economic times of 1988 and the barren world of remote Texas. But it's a true story filled with a game that defines the future of its players and the town, for whom there is little else.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Gary Gaines, coach of the Permian Panthers, in an adaptation of the best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger about high school football. The Panthers have moved into the semifinals of the state championship but without their best player Boobie Miles (Derek Luke). Thornton underplays Gaines, with a few moments excepted where he berates his team. (The town, however, takes on the role of the rabid coach.) The stereotypically abusive dad, a former state champion who won't accept anything short of perfection from his son, is complemented by the single mom who studies plays with her son but gives unconditional love.

At one moment, however, Gaines delivers the usual pep talk in a most unusual tone--one of conciliation and harmony, ascribing perfection to doing all you can for your team so that you can look each one in the eye with love. It's not about winning, he says, and I believe him for the sentiment and the powerful delivery of the Oscar-winning Thornton.

The cinematography is too jumpy and close for me for most of the film although those who know this vicious contact sport swear it gives an authentic sense of the up close and personal linemen and battered running backs. The music is harsh at times, maybe even too dominating.

Whether or not this is how the final game of the championship was played is less important than the insights the film reinforces. No one who loses can shake the feeling of personal inadequacy, no one whose livelihood depends on winning can have respite from fickle fans, and athletes who don't study will find themselves returning to towns like Odessa to retell their football story like the Ancient Mariner.

In "Miracle" (2004) USA veteran hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) knows it's not just a game, as his enduring wife (Patricia Clarkson) reminds him in the hours when he is most absorbed in game films and firings and neglecting his family. In fact, `Miracle' is about this remarkable coach's vision that only the most grueling practice will prepare them for the best team in the world. He purposely at one point verbally beats them up.

The two films show different coaching styles but the same love of a tough game where its winners take abuse and admiration in equal measure. It's the true believers in the game who best define the drama: "I think that I would still rather score a touchdown than make love to the prettiest girl in the United States." (Paul Hornung)