Friday Night Lights (review)

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No Crying in Football

I don’t understand the purpose of this movie. I don’t understand the purpose of football, it’s true, but that’s not the same thing as not understanding the purpose of Friday Night Lights. A good sports movie should have something to say to those who aren’t fans of the particular sport in question. Maybe it’s that I don’t see anything noble or uplifting in the ritualized warfare of football and so the sport simply doesn’t work for me on the metaphoric level Lights is aiming for. Or maybe I do understand the purpose of the film but don’t want to acknowledge as much because it’s so very distasteful.
Director Peter Berg (The Rundown, Very Bad Things) shoots this story of one season of football at a West Texas high school in 1988 — which is based on a bestselling nonfiction book — like he’s selling you Nikes or Coca-Cola or high-end mutual funds, the slo-mo washed-out handheld imagery bursting with its own significance. That it actually does turn into a Nike commercial, for a brief moment two minutes into the film, is less important than how it turns into a lifestyle advertisement for the noxious small-town culture that turns high-school football players into local heroes, no matter what price these young men have to pay. This is a corrosive, macho, superaggressive world in which a player has to prove himself not-gay to his “public” — ie, some random girl at a party, by allowing himself to be bullied into banging her, the impersonalness of which he seems to find as distasteful as I’m making it sound; where radio-broadcast postmortems of games feature callers denigrating the coach as “a fucking idiot,” or the players as “doin’ too much learnin’ in the schools”; where coaches play fast and loose with kids’ health and so players are grievously injured on a regular basis.

The anti-intellectualism is nothing new — that’s certainly been a factor in American culture for just about forever. But it’s the tiny, stunted expectations everyone here has for everyone else that is so disheartening. Have we really become so beaten down as a people that there’s something to celebrate in the idea that the very best moments of a man’s life will come to him in high school, that it’s all downhill after the age of 18? Are we really meant to find something righteous in a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive father (played, in a stamp of all-Americanism, by country musician Tim McGraw) who taunts his player son (Garrett Hedlund: Troy) for every fumble, every missed pass, because this represents his best wishes for the kid to make the most of the only worthwhile thing he’s going to do for the rest of his life? Isn’t it really rather sad that the uncle (Grover Coulson) of an injured player (Derek Luke: Spartan, Antwone Fisher) speaks not of his nephew returning to the game eventually but of “we,” that “we’ll be back”? Isn’t it really rather sad that so many people — from the uncle to the aforementioned radio callers — have so much invested in a high-school football game? But this is all brought to you by Coca-Cola and Nike as a vital, happy part of the American experience. It’s obvious that such intense involvement in something so, relatively speaking, insignificant does exist, but if I were looking for some sort of criticism of it, or even just a simple deconstruction to help me understand it, I wouldn’t find it here.

Billy Bob Thornton (The Alamo, Bad Santa), as the coach, does his usual thoughtful job of bringing so much more to the screen than the script gives him to work with — the only doubt in the film is in his eyes. But when one of his players tells his friends, “We gotta lighten up — we’re 17,” such hesitancy in the pursuit of insanity is forgotten as soon as it’s uttered. One player jokes that it’s “straight As for athletes” in the twisted world he lives in. So what if he can’t read? His life, all that will matter about it anyway, will be over in a few short months. And Friday Night Lights has no problem with that.

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