Friday Night Lights is an atmospheric wonder. The Explosions in the Sky soundtrack (now a cliché, but it works here) coupled with shots of big sky over big football fields in the dawn sunlight create a vaguely epic and woozy texture. The imagery from cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (who is now using his penchant for the big picture in big pictures like Battleship and Lone Survivor) reminds us that we are in Texas where there is more space that people. Sports radio plays non diegetically as coach and student sit in silence driving down long stretches of highway. The world outside the football field is quiet and calm. And then suddenly, with a closeups on padded bodies colliding and the crunch that come with it, roaring crowds heard off in the distance, we are thrown into the drama of football.
What we have here is the story of a single season of high school football in obsessed Odessa, Texas. There are few, if any characters in the film that don’t care about what happens on that field every Friday night. A girl makes a statue of the quarterback out of rice crispies. A local man and his newborn pose for a photo with the running back. Cheerleaders and random kids at school, the owner of the local diner, the town sheriff, moms, dads, radio hosts, teachers – everyone seems to be putting all their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of a few pimply teenaged boys and the coach of the Permian High School Panthers, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton). And the players know that not only the town, but their futures depend on this. Despite sparse dialogue, it is readily apparent that football is a person’s only ticket out of Odessa. It breeds hometown pride and then helps the boys get as far away from there as possible.
Based on H. G. Bissinger’s accounts of football-crazed Odessa, Texas in 1988 as recorded in the book of the same name, It’s basis in true events is the only thing surprising about the setup; it couldn’t be more Hollywood. The big star injures himself early in the season and must be replaced by a rookie kid who doesn’t even bring his helmet to the first game. Despite the unexpected hiccup, with a lot of sweat and heart, they make it to the championship game. It’s classic Hollywood drama.
What sets Friday Night Lights apart is the film’s desire to resist the drama. Unlike Friday Night Lights the TV show, we learn very little about the players’ home lives (though what we do learn is nothing unexpected: single parent families who push their sons too hard and the resulting tensions that bubble up in different ways), just enough to keep the stakes high. We never meet their girlfriends or see who they hang out with in the off season. There is nothing else for these guys besides football.
Even Thornton, the only truly recognizable ‘star’ in the film, plays Coach Gaines not like the inspirational beacon of citizenship and manhood that one would expect, but like a man who’s not quite sure how he ended up at the center of attention, having to make a speech. His wife and daughter may be the only town residents who are anywhere close to football-apathetic. He cares about these boys, hosts them in him home for dinner, gives them rides after the game, but it’s clear that coaching for him is a job.
Director Peter Berg, who also helms the much soapier TV adaptation, finds his excitement here in football’s natural penchant for high drama, making anything off the field seem boring. Each game is a blur of motor-mouthed announcers, roaring crowds, and the tension right after a particularly rough tackle. So when the Panthers make it to the final game, the pressure is almost unbearable. That shot of a silent field covered in morning dew as Explosions in the Sky sustain a single note for what seems like forever is full of the anticipation of the moments before their lives change. And when the game is finally underway it almost seems impossible that they could be living these moments.
So when in the final moments the boys do the impossible, they lose the game, the camera pans to all their loved ones who were counting on them all this time. Instead of disappointment, the shocking truth is written all over their faces, they love these boys even in defeat. Too bad that can’t earn anyone a college scholarship.