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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Friday Night Lights" (2004)

“Friday Night Lights” accomplishes something special. It does not tell a story about a football team that wins the big game. It tells the story of individuals and the weight of the world that rests on their shoulders to win that big game. It takes place in an economically depressed Texas town called Odessa where people depend on the high school football team to win the state championship. In fact, it’s no secret that the football coach gets paid considerably more than the principal. The team players get treated like royalty wherever they go, that is until they start losing. If the team doesn’t win, the town has nothing and nothing else matters. It’s a small town that has the ability to make a mediocre football player feel smaller.

But I went into “Friday Night Lights” thinking it would be about a football team that needs to win the big game. I dragged myself kicking and screaming to this movie, thinking it would consist of misfit team players, their eccentric coach and the stunts they pull to win the state championship. Understand, I don’t dislike sports films. I just hate that they come with no-brainer payoffs. I prefer surprises when I go to the movies and at the time of day I saw this, I had no patience for a movie without surprises.

Imagine my surprise. “Friday Night Lights” is a true heartbreaker, a sad account of a town dependent on a trophy and a dark exploration of how one’s past can become a self-inflicted curse. It’s also hopeful, crowd-pleasing and beautifully filmed. It shuns conventionality in its execution as well as the stories it tells. It centers on a few characters, each wrestling with a personal conflict big enough to fill Soldiers Field. It’s all based on Buzz Bissinger’s book (a true story), but because we go to these kinds of movies to escape, to root and to cheer, the question I posed before remains: Why make this movie?


I’ll get to my answer later. “Friday Night Lights” has no central character. Of course, we have the coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), who has seen his fair share of winning teams and losing ones. He’s new to this town and is more than ready for the town’s verbal slings and arrows if his team doesn’t deliver. His star player is a cocky big mouth named Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) who seems more than ready to take on the world of professional football and the fame that accompanies it.

A more tragic story centers around Donny Billingsly (Garrett Hedlund), who lives with his abusive father, Charles (a great out-of-nowhere performance by country singer Tim McGraw). Charles won his state championship years ago and wants nothing more than for his son to at least hang onto the ball when he catches it. He warns his son that this is the only time in his life he will have to be something. After this, life is pretty much over. Another player, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) must deal with his ailing mother, who wants nothing more than for him to win a scholarship and go to college, but without him no one will be there to care for her.

I know what you’re thinking. You have it in your head that the star player will somehow injure himself and that Billingsly will win the game and he will stand up to his abusive father and that Mike will win a scholarship, someone will come home to take care of his mother and all will be right with the world. Think that, if you must. It’s not a bad way to go in.


Screenwriter David Aaron Cohen effortlessly weaves these stories in and out of each other making every character and situation worthy of their own movie. Director Peter Berg makes a daring choice to try and convey the drama in grainy verité that in the wrong hands could come off as being pretentious and unwarranted. The shaky camera, which gives a clear sense of immediacy and intimacy, combined with an ethereal, guitar driven score by Explosions In the Sky give “Friday Night Lights” a fresh identity in an otherwise stale genre.

So, why tell this true story when there’s bound to be a more hopeful true story about football that will make an audience cheer? Call this a reach, but I believe there exists a parallel between the town of Odessa and America in a time of war and how we depend on the young to fight our battles for us before they even have a chance to discover who they are and why they fight in the first place. “Friday Night Lights” depicts the pressure a town places on its team to bring home the championship, much in the way a country’s leader or an entire nation hopes and prays our troops will return home victorious, or at the very least unharmed and without humility. Even though the film takes place in 1988 (When Bush the First was voted into office), its microcosm of Odessa conveys the spirit of our country today in a time of uncertainty. We’re not calling in radio shows complaining about the players, but of the Texas coach who put them there.

“Friday Night Lights” also has a clear message about not what you win or lose in a conflict, but what you take away from it when it’s over. The young boys in this film see a town populated by adults stuck in time. They see people who live vicariously through the new breeds of high school football players. The men in this town show off the championship rings on their fingers, but the rings don’t tell a full story. The rings don’t tell the new players what these former athletes learned from winning. The sight of them just adds to the pressure. Will these new players go on to be just as disillusioned, spiteful and obsessed when they get that age (notice how I didn’t say ‘grow up’)?

I put “Friday Night Lights” at the top of my 10 Best list for 2004. I have seen it three times and it gets better and richer with every viewing. To be honest, I love most of the movies on that list every bit as much as this one, but my love for them seemed almost pre-ordained. I love Alexander Payne movies. I love the idea of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet being in the same film. I’m fascinated by the story of Howard Hughes and Clint Eastwood seems to be on yet another career high. But I don’t love football. I couldn’t care less about it. I care even less about high school football. Yet, when I watch this movie I don’t care about anything else. That’s something special.

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