Sunday, September 3, 2017

Friday Night Lights

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I’m from Philadelphia, so I guess it’s sacrilege that instead of Rocky, this 2004 movie, based on true events that took place in West Texas in 1988, is my favorite sports film. Yes, it takes several liberties with the book by former Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Buzz Bissinger on which it is based. But, it not only shows the negative aspects of the extreme preoccupation America has with football, but also balances those observations by presenting the positive rewards of team spirit and the indelible gratifying youthful memories that extreme sports competition can create.
The opening establishing shots show the vast Texas expanse of barren landscape, which suggests why the people in a mainstream town like Odessa turn to the excitement of football to fill up the empty spaces in the lives of its residents. (Much of the cinematography is hand held, not consisting of artistic, staged shots, which gives the film more of a realistic, documentary feel). These citizens close up their businesses to go to the football games. They name their pets “Panther” and “Mojo” after the team’s monikers. The radio stations’ broadcasts are filled with the comments of their listeners who speculate on the chances of the Permian High School football team. The camera moves from the wider shots to focusing on the players’ hands and feet, and football gear that must work together to win. One radio caller shows how the town is totally invested in football when he says that even if they pay the coach $100,000 a year, it's worth it if the team takes the state championship. We begin to see the pressure that is piled onto the minds and bodies of the players from all sides to not only succeed, but to dominate the sport in which they compete. Mrs. Winchell (Connie Cooper) drills her son, the self-doubting, serious senior quarterback Mike (Luca Black), not on mathematics or English, but on football plays. (Mike has conflicting responsibilities, because his mother is sick, and he feels that he can’t go away to college and leave her. He has an estranged sibling whom he calls in a phone booth. Mike looks like he is in a prison, alone, and from whom he gets no help in caring for the mother). Even at pre-season practice, college scouts sit in the stands, as the team members realize that their futures may depend on every move they make on the playing field. Former state champion Charles Billingsley (country music singer Tim McGraw, in a terrific performance), wearing his championship ring, as do many men in the town, marches on the field and humiliates his son, Don (Garrett Hedlund), a running back, for fumbling the ball. In an interview, when asked what it’s like having a football legend for a father, Don conveys a great deal about the burden placed upon him by not saying much when he responds with, “Next question.” He says that in a small town, if you “screw up” everyone knows it. There is no place to hide your failures.
The team has built its whole offense on one player, African American student Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), who has a great physique, and can do it all: run; catch; throw. His abilities make him so egotistical, that his self-absorption does not allow for any room to care about being part of a team. He tells Mike, after the quarterback says Boobie hasn’t lifted weights like the other players, “This is God given. The only thing I gotta do is show up.” He sees himself as chosen by God, and does not have to earn his place as part of the team. For him, he is the team. His boasting is an affront to the oppositely quiet Ivory Christian, aka Preacher Man (Lee Jackson), who exudes stoical strength. On the field, after Don’s father has humiliated his son, Boobie says to Don that he doesn’t have to worry about hanging onto the ball, because he “ain’t never gonna get the ball. Your job is to be blocking for Boobie and I don’t care if your dad is sitting over there crying.” Don goes after Boobie for his selfish insensitivity, which shows how the star player’s attitude divides the team that should be thinking about how to work together.

But, Boobie’s talents only revolve around football. When asked about his grades, he says he gets all “A’s,” because he is an athlete. He has nothing to add about his courses. He says, “Hey, there’s only one subject. It’s football.” His lack of any other knowledge shows when he doesn’t know the word “distinguished” in the college material sent to him, ironically from institutions of higher learning trying to recruit him. Later, he thinks a MRI can fix a knee injury. This emphasis on sports at the expense of academic disciplines, shown in Mike’s session with his mother, is echoed in a radio comment. A man says, “There’s too much learning going on in that school,” a sad revelation of how things have turned upside down, where sports is thought of as the primary part of the curriculum, and academic studies are considered to be extracurricular.
The town will not give the players a moment of rest from the responsibility heaped on them. While they eat in a car, a man drives up and asks them in mid-bite if they are going to win State, be undefeated, get it done. The implication is that if they don’t succeed, their lives are ruined. When they eat at the burger joint, a  thirty-five year old man, driving in his car, yells to Mike, Don, and Chavez (Jay Hernandez) about going to a party with the other football players. The boys comment on his age, which implies how the man is still living in a state of arrested development, not having moved on from his youth. A former title winner wants a picture of his baby with Mike, who he calls the next Texas State Championship quarterback. He tells Mike that he should not waste a second of being on top of the world at age seventeen, because “before you know it, it’s done.” He says, “After this, it’s just babies and memories.” There is this carpe diem feeling that hovers over the movie about how fleeting are the youthful exhilarating feelings of triumph, indestructibility, and freedom.
Don is also trying to have some seventeen year old fun before the grueling football season is to start. He takes a girl home, and starts to make out with her. But, his father, like the town, won’t give him a moment’s escape. He barges in on them, drunk, and starts to wrap Don’s hands around a football with duct tape, yelling at him for not being able to hold onto the ball. His father is a bitter man, who has not been able to make the transition from being a high school hero to being an average,  working stiff. He wants to recapture the idol worship of his youth by vicariously experiencing the accomplishments of his son, who he sees as not being capable of achieving greatness. At one point, after a game loss, Charles kicks out the windows of the car, saying he needs air because Don makes him sick. He takes off his championship ring, presses it into his son’s head, asking him “Can you touch that?” He then throws the ring out of the car window, which implies that his son’s failures, which he shares, has brought him shame, and has invalidated his entitlement to past glories. After he has sobered up, Charles says he didn’t mean half the things he said. But, he echoes what the man with the baby said to Mike. He says that winning is the only thing important his son will have in his life. He says that is not only an ugly fact of life it is the only fact of life. He tells Don that he has only one year to make memories. Don found his dad’s ring, and gives it back to him, trying to show that he doesn’t want his father to feel like a failure because of him.

After the exhortation to enjoy the moment, Mike goes to a party. But, even here peers test him to see if he is worthy of their expectations. A local beauty wonders why Mike doesn’t have a girlfriend, and asks if he is gay. He says no, but she then asks, “Can you prove it?” He then has sex in the bathroom with her, but for Mike the act is more like another challenge on an obstacle course rather than a pleasurable event. At a dinner party where Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is a guest, wives complain about the size of the players. There is a “size matters” theme here from the females, as even Gaines’ wife later talks about how big the opponents are. The men have to measure up on the macho meter, as did Mike at the party. The team may be called the Permian Panthers, but their nickname, displayed on the side of the high school building is “Mojo,” which is a magical ability, but is often associated with a man’s sexual power.

The man who experiences the full force of the town’s intimidation is Coach Gaines. The radio callers and the community leaders constantly harass him about the team’s efforts. They are like backseat drivers, telling him how he should do his job, and they Monday-morning quarterback like mad. At the dinner party mentioned above, racism (more emphasized in the book) surfaces when one of the women says to use Boobie on defense, too, because nothing will hurt that (n-word). Her remark shows how the white leaders just see the black player as a tool to be used for their own glory, and don’t value him as an individual. Gaines says, in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, that he doesn’t want to use Boobie on defense because he doesn’t want him to get hurt. The coach’s response to the pressure varies as the story progresses. At the beginning, he passes on the weight of the obligations by saying that the team must protect the town’s reputation. He says that they are in the business of winning, and asks them if they can be “perfect” because that is what it will to take to achieve their goals. On the locker room wall, there is a sign that reads, “Whatever it takes,” which doesn’t leave much room for human imperfection.

In the first game of the season, Boobie runs for touchdowns, throws for one, and catches the ball, taking it into the end zone. Permian runs up the score. Toward the end of the game, Gaines sends in the third-string running back, Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) to substitute for Boobie. In what appears to be just a humorous moment, Comer is ready to run onto the field without his helmet. He gets called back, and told to find his headgear, which he can’t locate. This funny scene actually illustrates what happens when the exuberance of winning becomes so carried away, a player forgets about his own safety. Gaines chastises Comer, but then recklessly puts Boobie back in the game, putting him at risk for injury that he said he wanted to avoid. Of course Boobie thinks he can’t be stopped, and even wants to kick the extra point after a touchdown. His arrogance and the coach’s negligence have repercussions. Boobie tears a knee ligament when he is tackled. A shot of one of the opposing players quietly congratulating the tackler shows how football can be sadistic when hurting another player is praised. Boobie wouldn’t allow for the possibility of injury, of failure, and he has no backup plan. And, the coach had built his team around one “star” player.
Boobie is in denial. He only wants to hear from the local doctor and the radiologist after the MRI that he can play again. When he is told he can’t, he says it is a conspiracy because the MRI was taken at a hospital in an opponent’s area in Midland. The need to win has been so emphasized that even Boobie’s uncle, L. V. Miles (Grover Coulson), who should be looking out for his nephew’s health, tells Gaines that there was no tear and Boobie is okay to play. The coach keeps asking how Boobie is doing after he seeks medical assessments, but is also in denial because he doesn’t seek verification as to the extent of the injury.

After a devastating second game loss, there is understandable despair on the part of the coach and the teammates. Gaines goes home to a house whose lawn has been covered with “for sale” signs that the fickle townspeople, letting anger overcome loyalty, have placed there. The coach does handle the situation with grace, reassuring his wife by hugging her as she sits looking at the signs. Chavez, Don, and Mike are in a desolate part of town, which mirrors their empty feelings, taking turns at target practice. Chavez is more upbeat, but he, unlike Boobie, has good grades, and has a shot at future success outside of sports. He says that that they are only seventeen, and have their lives ahead of them. But, Don, and Mike don’t share Chavez’s hope, and “don't feel seventeen.” They have been made to endure the wear and tear that usually accompanies the obligations and responsibilities that later years exact.

Gaines at first does yell at his players, telling Mike that he is playing “like the village idiot” at one point. Gaines’ sympathetic side does emerge as he visits Mike at his home. He says he knows Mike knows that life isn’t always fair, but if he doesn’t do something about it, then he will always “get the short end of the stick.” Mike admits that his mind isn’t right. Gaines can see that Mike has a confidence problem, and he tells the young man he will one day have to leave his mother and his home, and become an individual. If he is able to take care of himself, reach back and find his inner strength, then Mike will be able to “seriously fly.”
The injury to Boobie becomes a catalyst that causes the players to discover their individual talents and play like a united team. In the next game, Comer takes a lateral pass and runs across the field to score a touchdown. His action sparks the team, as he scores additional times, the players block a kick for a touchdown, and Don runs the ball into the end zone. The Panthers come from behind to win the game. The team wins four straight games. Gaines wants to believe Boobie when he says he can play. He hesitates, but puts him in the next game. Boobie re-injures his knee and must be carried off the field. The permanent loss of their star player temporarily demoralizes the team, and they lose the game. We see Boobie sitting on his porch, looking at men come by to pick up the trash. He looks at them, and we know he is thinking that he may be looking at his future. When Boobie cleans out his locker, he acts cool, but it is heartbreaking to see him in tears in the car with his uncle. He is a young man who thought he would always be a winner, but now is emotionally defeated.

Permian winds up in a three-way tie, and a coin toss will decide which two teams will advance to the play-offs. After all the work and anguish that the players have experienced, their fate will be decided, not by talent and dedication, but by random chance. On the drive to the coin toss, Mike confesses to Gaines that he feels as if no matter whether they win or lose games, he feels as if he’s going to be a loser in his life. He likens it to feeling as if he has been cursed. Gaines admits that it took him a long time to realize that inside oneself, there isn’t much difference between winning and losing. It’s more external, the way people treat you that’s different. He tries to tell Mike that there are no curses, but what we call curses are really “self-imposed.” He says, “We all of us, dig our own holes.” In other words, we can defeat ourselves because we are our own worst enemies.
Permian survives the coin toss, and goes on to win games in the playoffs and reach the state championship game against the unstoppable Dallas high school team. Even after overcoming many hurdles, Gaines faces intimidation from the local community leaders. He can’t even go grocery shopping with his family and have respite from the pressure. The men drive up in the parking lot and tell him that if he doesn’t win, it won’t be good for him. He sarcastically tells them he appreciates their support. As the players board the bus for the final game, Boobie shows up, asking if there is room for one more. He may be a fallen hero, but he shows character, now becoming a true team player, ready to provide inspirational support for his teammates.
Dallas dominates the first half, overpowering Permian, until the closing seconds, when Comer takes the ball for a long run and a touchdown. At halftime, instead of bellowing out a loud speech exhorting his players, Gaines gives a philosophical, emotional talk. He explains what he meant when he asked early in the season if they could be “perfect.” He says, “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends.” He says if they can be sure that they did everything they could, then they didn’t let themselves or others down. If they can do that, then they are “perfect.” He urges each to hold in his heart what he feels for the other teammates, and Boobie, who would do anything to be playing with them. Gaines tells them that who they are, no matter the game’s outcome, has made him grateful because his “heart is full.”
The team does exactly what Gaines said they would have to do to be “perfect.” They give it everything they have, and battle back to within one touchdown. The film’s play action sequences here are electrifying and involving, and doubts about the negative aspects surrounding football dissolve in the focus on the these battling warriors. Don brings them close to the end zone in a bruising run, and Mike falls inches short of scoring a touchdown as time runs out, and Dallas wins. Don’s father knows that his son played a great game, gave it his all, and shows that he feels his boy is a winner by going down on the field and putting his championship ring on his son’s finger.
The movie ends with Chavez, Don, and Mike basically saying goodbye to the game near the stadium. Don says he will “miss the lights.” He is bidding farewell to that moment in the spotlight that the champions before him were talking about. We read about what happens to the players, going off to college and finding jobs, but that is all aftermath. Gaines is picking out the players for the next team, and we are told the next year Permian was undefeated. Why isn’t that the season Bissinger and the filmmakers zeroed in on? Because the more dramatic tale, the more involving, and edifying one is that which shows how individuals face adversity, challenges, and persevere. Those are the stories that resonate and inspire.

In a couple of weeks, the next film is Stalag 17.


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