Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Friday Night Lights

When I lived in Texas I had a friend from Odessa who I started out just liking but grew to admire. Steve was good at a lot of things but never one to brag, so it took a while to learn things about him. The discovery that surprised me most, since he acted like someone who’d never been fussed over much, was that he’d been something of a star for a year or two. If high school football were a religion in Texas – and it very nearly is – Odessa would be its Jerusalem, and Steve had been part of the starting lineup for his high school football team. I got some idea of what that meant when his wife said she was stopped by a stranger one day in Houston, a good 10 years after Steve graduated, while wearing his jersey. “That’s Steve Caywood’s number!” the woman said.

I used to wonder how it felt to play that kind of football, but I think I have a pretty good idea now. That’s because I’ve seen Friday Night Lights, the story of Odessa’s Permian Panthers of 1988. Based on a nonfiction book by the same name, which Sports Illustrated called the best ever written about football, the movie chronicles the hard work and relentless pressure that molded the players into winners as they pursued the state championship.

Author Buzz Bissinger implies that the people of Odessa were obsessed with football because they had nothing else to feel good about. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but director Peter Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler make you believe it, shooting the town in grainy, desaturated tones that turn the bleak settings they chose even bleaker. Pump jacks keep chugging away in the background, but hardly anyone seems to have benefited from the oil money they’re pulling in. As a father of one of the players (nicely played by country music star Tim McGraw) tells his son, winning the state championship is “the only thing you’re ever gonna have.”

But the kids on the team are motivated by more than just wanting that trophy. The dad who delivers that speech is a former state champ (there are a lot of them around town) turned mean drunk who takes his frustrations out on his son, Don Billingsley. As a result, Billingsley (played by Troy’s Patroclus, Garrett Hedlund) is acting out in a big way, but football turns out to be his salvation: The team gives him a stabilizing sense of brotherhood, while the game gives his aggression a socially sanctioned outlet. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), a somber young man burdened by the double responsibility of leading his team and looking after his disabled mother, works at football more than he plays it, seeing the game as his chance to win the scholarship he’ll need for college. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the team’s charismatic star running back, doesn’t even pretend to be interested in school. Barely literate, he stakes all his career hopes on football – which looks like a pretty good bet until he’s sidelined by a serious injury.

Berg, who has more credits as an actor than as a director, gets first-rate performances from his cast. Lucas projects a touching sense of principled torment as Winchell. He also gets the flat Odessa accent just right. And as coach Gary Gaines, Billy Bob Thornton uses little more than his eyes to telegraph the thoughts of a straight-arrow, benevolently paternalistic authority figure who’s 180 degrees from the social outcasts and tortured souls he usually plays.

The games are shot from a player’s perspective, the camera and mike so close to the action that you practically feel the blows and smell the blood. You can also feel the weight of the town’s expectations. Players are treated like rock stars, getting freebies from local merchants, being asked to pose for pictures with fans, and getting interviewed by journalists. When the Panthers make it to the state finals, the game is held in the Astrodome and 64,000 people show up to watch.

But all that attention can be oppressive. Every move the team makes is analyzed on a radio call-in show, and the verdicts are often harsh. Coach Gaines, who gets more than his share of abuse, passes on the pressure to the players, urging them to “be perfect.” No wonder Winchell resists when Billingsley suggests that they “lighten up,” reminding him that they’re only 17. “Do you feel 17?” Winchell replies. “I don’t feel 17.”

The Panthers won five state trophies between 1965 and 1989, but Bissinger chose to write about a year when they didn’t quite make it. That helps make the movie feel real: After all, even the Panthers lost more state championships than they won.

It also keeps the focus on the effort the boys put into trying to win – and that, as the coach points out in his final speech, is what really counts. Being perfect, he says, is not about winning. It’s about doing your best, living fully in the moment, and “being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down.”

Who knew West Texas football could be so spiritual?